The leaker as the masked man

An array of films is chronicling one of the most unique personalities of our time

Written by New York Times | Published: October 13, 2013 12:23:32 am

An array of films is chronicling one of the most unique personalities of our time

Before there was a documentary about WikiLeaks,before there was a major motion picture about its founder,Julian Assange was a star.

With his mysterious hacker back story and shock of silver hair,Assange burst into public consciousness in 2010 with WikiLeaks’s release of the Apache helicopter attack video and,in the process of revealing millions of secrets,unlocked a rarefied kind of fame.

An unfolding tale of a swashbuckling avatar against powerful forces was a movie trailer waiting to happen. The mythmaking was underway long before the spring release of We Steal Secrets,the documentary directed by Alex Gibney,and well in advance of the build-up to The Fifth Estate,the Bill Condon movie due October 18,starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange.

The WikiLeaks-Assange story has snaked through countless twists and turns that played out on multiple platforms all over the world,scanning as a movie that has unfurled in real time. In that sense,the first film about WikiLeaks is the one that happened right in front of our eyes,one that left governments scrambling,media organisations gasping and regular people guessing about his next move.

Given its high profile and cinematic elements,the WikiLeaks tale was catnip to the movie industry. At one time,there were five films about Assange in development,with the documentary and the new drama eventually winning the race and going into production. The movies,each directed by an Academy Award winner,have sparked enormous discussion and remarkable pushback from WikiLeaks and its supporters.

It is a measure of our times,and perhaps Assange’s appetite for renown,that a technology designed to enable anonymity for whistle-blowers became an engine of celebrity.

Assange is Australian by birth,but his accent is transnational,reinforcing the impression that he is a new kind of human,a product of the Internet who lives on the digital grid and in our collective consciousness.

The fact that the peripatetic globe-trotter is now walled in at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London is a remarkably paradoxical third act.

“Even while he is attacking our movie,you can’t help but feel how vulnerable he is in this moment,” Condon said,adding that Assange was “stuck in a self-imposed cell,and there is something deeply tragic about that”.

By trying to stop the government’s digital bots from taking over our lives,Assange would seem to be fighting on behalf of all mankind. He is Tom Cruise in Minority Report,Harrison Ford in Blade Runner and Matt Damon in Elysium.

Then again,Assange is fond of saying he will crush an opponent “like a bug”. Through that prism,he is closer to a Bond villain — stateless,vaguely Euro-ish,with stunt hair and a remarkably cool demeanour.

He is an outlaw who lives by his own code,as was Tony Soprano,but his closest counterpart is probably Carrie Mathison,the CIA operative on Homeland,skilled and omniscient but with a messianic zeal that tends to create a great deal of collateral damage.

On the big screen,the two movies cast Assange as a tragic and self-seeking figure,a leader of a cause that conflated his personal interests and the movement’s. Perhaps no one could shoulder the scrutiny that Assange has lived through,but he does not play the game of making nice with the media.

Assange has made it clear that he hates both films,which comes as no surprise from a man who sees agendas and lies everywhere he looks. Gibney’s film may be a work of journalism,but its rise-and-fall narrative did not sit well with its subject.

WikiLeaks put out an annotation of a partial script that takes issue with practically everything in the film,beginning with the title,which is described as “irresponsible libel”. The memo adds,“Not even critics in the film say that WikiLeaks steals secrets.” Gibney is accused of selective editing,underappreciating the historic nature of the organisation’s work and rendering Chelsea Manning (previously known as Bradley Manning) as a caricature,among many,many other complaints.

“Julian was able to pull together the biggest news organisations on Earth and get them to cooperate around a single leak,holding the story for three weeks,” said James Ball,a former WikiLeaks associate who now works at The Guardian.

“He has the guts,the arrogance and the insanity to take everyone on,” said Ball.

David Carr

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