Why WikiLeaks and Julian Assange hate the WikiLeaks movie

October 22, 2013

Guardian journalist Ian Katz (Dan Stevens), left, works with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in “The Fifth Estate.” (Frank Connor)

WikiLeaks wants you to know that it's very happy to see the new movie “The Fifth Estate,” about the whistle-blowing organization's birth, bomb fantastically at the box office this weekend. How happy? Of the 21 tweets that WikiLeaks sent on Monday, three involved a document dump from an intelligence contractor in Bahrain, one linked to an article about the United States' chemical weapons stockpile, and 12 celebrated the dreadful ticket sales of "Fifth Estate" ’s debut.

It’s no secret that WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange and others with the organization were unhappy about "The Fifth Estate." For months, they have campaigned vocally against the movie, which WikiLeaks considers an unfair portrayal of the events leading up to U.S. Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning’s 2010 release of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables and other government materials.

The movie is, admittedly, getting terrible reviews. I admit that I fell asleep during a Saturday night showing, despite my considerable interest in the subject matter. But WikiLeaks’ unremitting and sometimes overheated criticism of the film is something else entirely -- and can sometimes seem only to reinforce criticisms of the group as paranoid and self-aggrandizing. More than one supporter has asked the organization to please get back to leaking government secrets. Here's the film's trailer:

In response, WikiLeaks has made its own documentary, “Mediastan,” which is free for downloading during "Fifth Estate" ’s release.

WikiLeaks’ beef with the movie appears to come down to three things. First, Assange and company complain that the filmmakers “had an agenda” -- that they set out to make WikiLeaks look bad while failing to show  the good that the organization has done. Second, they’re unhappy that the film has been marketed as more factual than it is, given that many of its events and characters are only loosely based on real life. Third, and perhaps most tellingly, there's also what can feel like an undercurrent of sour grapes to the criticism, as if maybe WikiLeaks just wanted to be invited to the party.

“The film does not tell the story Julian Assange or WikiLeaks staff such as Sarah Harrison, Joseph Farrell or Kristinn Hrafnsson would tell,” a WikiLeaks memo says.

That seems to be the real crux of their complaints: “Fifth Estate” does not think of WikiLeaks the way WikiLeaks likes to think of itself. WikiLeaks argues that the  film carries a  pro-secrecy, pro-government bias, but it could also be the case that the film is trying to bring a different perspective to an issue with many controversial -- and valid! -- sides.

It's worth remembering that the books upon which “The Fifth Estate” is based were written by two people who underwent very public fallings-out with Assange and WikiLeaks. Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the organization’s former spokesman, was fired in 2010 after he and Assange fought over his role in WikiLeaks. Domscheit-Berg went on to write a book, “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website,” and give many, many media interviews about Assange -- whom he described as erratic, paranoid and “obsessed with power,” which tracks with the Assange we see in the film.

The other book, “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy,” was written by Guardian reporters David Leigh and Luke Harding. Leigh has called Assange a “reckless amateur” and reported some unattractive tidbits about the WikiLeaks leader -- including one incident in which Assange allegedly said he didn’t care if informants got killed because of what he published.

WikiLeaks is right that the film, much like the books it’s based on, is short on good vibes for Assange and his work. That's nothing new: Lots of Hollywood movies have been made from unflattering books, and lots of their subjects have hated them. “The Social Network,” about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, comes to mind. But while  Zuckerberg commented in several interviews that the film wasn’t true to life, his criticisms never rose to the sort of moral outrage that WikiLeaks has mustered up, in repeatedly condemning the film as not “fair and accurate.”

Of course, WikiLeaks may need to fight for its reputation in a way Facebook or Zuckerberg never have. It has never been a particularly beloved organization -- even in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 leaks about the war in Afghanistan, which is itself unpopular, one poll found that 68 percent of Americans considered WikiLeaks a threat to the public interest, and 59 percent wanted Assange arrested. It doesn’t appear that impression has changed too much over the past three years: Public opinion of Edward Snowden, who leaked information on a vast NSA spying program and later sought legal help from WikiLeaks, is also very mixed. And WikiLeaks, critically, relies largely on donations to fund its work.

If WikiLeaks is hoping to promote itself as a group serving a grand, idealistic cause, though, it might want to avoid sounding quite so catty on Twitter.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Max Fisher · October 18, 2013