The James Clayton Column: HollywoodLeaks - I am The Fifth Estate
With the release of The Fifth Estate on his mind, James wades into the issue of whistleblowers and movie conspiracies...
"Is it secret? Is it safe?" No, Gandalf, it is not secret and it is definitely not safe. It is all out in the open, published on the internet for all to see. Someone got a hold of your secret Precious and now all the Trolls, Orcs and nasty busybody Hobbitses are going to slobber spittle all over the coveted prize you wished to protect and keep private. Some technical wizard with a computer, it was. Hmmmph. A wizard should know better.
From some angles, Benedict Cumberbatch's Julian Assange does look a bit like a wizard. Then again I suppose in a post-Harry Potter milieu everyone could potentially look like a wizard. Everyone, I guess, has the potential to be a wizard thanks to the internet and Hogwarts' all-embracing "Mudbloods welcome!" policy. It's a democratised world now and democratic principles are indeed something that's very important to Cumberbatch's character.
Julian Assange - the real one, the fictional one and the one who inhabits several personas in shades of grey somewhere between reality and fiction - is not a wizard. He is many things but I'm pretty sure that he's never claimed to be a wizard and has never been identified and charged as a wizard by the governing administrations of any country. He is only a wizard if we picture him as being like the Wizard of Oz - an enigmatic figure concealed behind smoke, mirrors and myth, locked up in the Emerald City (?!) that is the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
I can't find any flying monkeys or Munchkins in the WikiLeaks saga to strengthen these tenuous Oz links but still, I do see some parallels between the eponymous Wiz and the WikiLeaks editor-in-chief (at least, more than I do if I put him side-by-side with Harry Potter or Gandalf). Both are infamous enigmatic idols who, empowered by technology and publicity, come to hold tremendous influence. They are both highly ambiguous - are they benign or malicious? Are they genuinely interested in altruism and the greater good or are they self-serving ego-trippers only motivated by self-aggrandisement? Are they holding shameful secrets and are they actually very underwhelming when you come face-to-face with the real man and not the idealised image?
Clear answers aren't easy to come by and it's hard to get a hold on the truth about Assange. The Fifth Estate - the new thriller film from Bill Condon - may help us get a fix on the WikiLeaks figurehead, but it's more likely that we'll end up even more ambivalent and confused about the whole affair. Movies make myths and muddy the waters even if they are "based on a true story". This story is still ongoing, so The Fifth Estate isn't going to be operating as any kind of definitive final word on the issue or the complex personality caught in the centre of it.
Instead of looking to The Fifth Estate as an authentic documentary-like chronicle packed with all the accurate, absolute answers I'll be approaching it with a certain detachment and enjoying it as a dramatic work. I'm interested in The Fifth Estate as a thriller fronted by an outstanding cast, hung on a compelling plot and rich with pertinent themes and questions about human nature and the socio-political climate we live in.
How has technological advancement altered the balance of power between individuals, the masses and entrenched institutions in controlling positions of authority? What is the effect of power on single people and others around them? What happens to relationships when fame or sudden influence and great responsibility enter the picture? What happens to the truth, personal ideology and identity in extraordinary circumstances, in times of fear or intensive pressure?
There are many other subtextual topics to be explored and if The Fifth Estate can raise only a few of them and get audiences thinking then it's a success as a provocative work of art and, thus, a worthy enterprise.
As I've already said, I'm not expecting this film to bust clouds, vaporise all the overhanging question marks or function as a watertight depiction of recent history. I hope that The Fifth Estate can help me get my head around the WikiLeaks scandal (or give me impetus to try outside of the cinema) but we don't necessarily need the film as an edifying document.
I also, personally, don't need this film as something to highlight what it's like to be a martyr for the truth. Many other movies have manifested a messiah complex - Soylent Green, Network, Serpico, Taxi Driver, it's a popular trope in 70s American cinema - but, really, I can get that experience in actual real life. Here's my truth which I've been keeping secret and safe but now wish to open up to all the creatures of (Middle) Earth. Prompted by the arrival of The Fifth Estate, I've decided it's high time I came out a whistleblower. After all, according to the movie's marketing tagline, I am the Fifth Estate.
I've dyed my hair white especially for the occasion. The occasion is the revelation that I'm now the custodian of a whole lot of sensitive material sucked out of the film industry's dark underbelly and shadowy private parts (these parts are not pretty. Oh indeed they are not, my Precious).
Over a number of years I've been collaborating with many inside sources, all operating undercover at great risk to both their careers and health. Many Bothans died for this information. Their sacrifices will not be in vain. I have compiled all this accumulated data and put it into a website titled HollywoodLeaks which is due to go live very soon.
What do I know? Everything, so all guilty parties (you know who you are) within the upper echelons of the American film industry who have withheld information have until the Halloween deadline to come clean before I expose them all. This is the Information Age and everything - every single damn thing - should be open and transparent. Studios need to be accountable, free from corruption and illegal activity. They need to stop conducting their affairs as if they were the Mafia or a CIA sub-unit.
Really, I'm doing everyone a great service and I urge everyone to embrace this as a fresh opportunity to exorcise the sins of the past ahead of an honest fresh future of filmmaking. This isn't a Jesus Christ pose or pretentious trolling - I am genuinely the rising saviour of 21st century cinema and it's my destiny to overcome the wicked, tricksy and false forces of evil at great personal cost.
Even if you try to strike me down and silence me with swiftly executed covert assassination ops you can't prevent the truth from coming out. I've got multiple back-up copies and a devoted sidekick called Sam ready to carry on and dive into the flames should any harm come to me. (I'm now completely confused and can't work out whether I'm Assange, Serpico, Gandalf, Frodo or someone else altogether. Being the Fifth Estate has brought on an extremely perplexing pop culture-addled identity crisis.)
This intel I've extracted from the papertrails, email exchanges and similar documentation is astounding. To filter through all this text and these images is to find yourself shocked, surprised and frequently appalled at the clandestine schemes cranking away behind the scenes.
Going over it all I keep on erupting in anger, further strengthening my resolve to make these conspiracies and corrupt affairs public knowledge as soon as possible. For example, I was furious to find out about the destruction of The RZA's original four-hour cut of The Man With The Iron Fists. Furthermore, I'm shaking with rage having discovered the true nature of the "dark forces" alluded to by Keanu Reeves recently when he tried to discuss what was holding up Bill & Ted 3. I've also found the real reason why The Iron Giant hasn't been released on Blu-ray yet. My friends, soon these dark forces will be forced into the spotlight and then we'll get our due retribution.
If those scandals aren't significant enough for you, how would you like to know the truth about Oliver Reed's fatal 'heart attack' while filming Gladiator in Malta? Maybe you'd like hear about the private collector who's withholding hundreds of 'lost' silent movies, colluding with other industry insiders, all waiting for the optimum moment at which they can profit most from their 'discovery'? Perhaps you'd like to peruse the confidential database of Academy members who've made it known to certain parties that they could potentially be swayed by sexual favours when Award Season comes around?
There's a whole stack of sordid material in this mix: hushed-up deaths of illegal immigrant crew members; agreements with editors to insert subliminal political campaign ads between the frames of family movies; studios paying design companies to deliberately produce sub-standard posters for clients so as to undermine their box office rivals; invoices from the A-list star who demands an extra $50,000 for every second she's forced to appear on screen alongside a Sagittarius.
I have all this and much more, and the much more is mindblowing and may completely destroy all your nice delusions about the film industry. The truth will out and set us all free and I will not be denied my righteous revelation moment even when my name is discredited as I'm extradited to Rivendell to answer trumped-up charges of criminal deviancy.
I swear, it was the Ent who propositioned me. Still, I know, a wizard should know better. We all should know better and know more. Now that we are the Fifth Estate, we can know more than they ever let us know in the past. Precious...
You can read James' last column here.
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