The Fifth Estate: When biopic subjects strike back

Julian Assange has been very vocal in his dislike of The Fifth Estate. What happens when biopic subjects hate their portrayal? Will Morley investigates.

Is The Fifth Estate “irresponsible, counterproductive and harmful”? Julian Assange – the film's subject – thinks so. But does the fact that the controversial WikiLeaks mastermind has denounced the film make it any less good? Or, indeed, any less true?

Biographical movies have been spun from the lives of characters as diverse as Genghis Khan and Joan Crawford.  The urge to peek behind the curtain and see who ‘Oz’ really is can be an incentive ticket-buyers  find hard to ignore. A biopic drawn from already familiar source material – especially a salacious best-seller or article – will have an even greater chance of success.  The Fifth Estate borrows from two books that are less than supportive of Assange, WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding, and Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website by ex-WikiLeaks staffer Daniel Domscheit-Berg.

In an effort to impede production, Assange reportedly wrote to lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch (a day before shooting) imploring him to reconsider his role. After revealing he had obtained a copy of the script, Assange then published a memo via WikiLeaks with numerous corrections to scenes, labeling the film “propaganda”.

This is not the first case of a subject trying to scupper a film: in 1941 William Randolph Hearst managed to effectively bury Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ film à clef that was a thinly-veiled attack on Hearst’s rise to power. A revered and influential publisher, Hearst rallied film executives to attempt to buy and burn the film negative – and when that didn’t work, a smear campaign was launched via the press. It may seem surprising to us now but it wasn’t until years later that Citizen Kane was finally revived, re-appraised and embraced by the public.

Reality bites

Other biopic subjects dissatisfied with their portrayals have had to suffice with mild grumblings to interviewers. NFL player Michael Oher, the inspiration behind the Sandra Bullock vehicle The Blindside, acknowledged that the film may be inspiring to others but said he hates the suggestion that he was a sporting ignoramus until his potential was unleashed by the Tuohy family.

“Sports is all I had growing up, and the movie made me look like I didn't know anything," Oher told the Los Angeles Times.

In 2011 Winnie Mandela spoke out against a film made about her life. Despite it being an overtly saccharine portrayal, she felt the project was “an insult” because the producers had chosen not to consult her on her own life story. (Incidentally, the critics who viewed it upon release in 2013 just felt the film was an insult to filmmaking and delivered overwhelmingly negative reviews.)

Steve Wozniak, the less famous co-founder of Apple, said of the recent Steve Jobs biopic Jobs that “almost every scene in the movie never happened.” Mark Zuckerberg was pleasantly surprised that The Social Network’s wardrobe department managed to nail every item of clothing he ever wore, but told CBS News he was disappointed that the movie boiled down his motivation to create Facebook as a means to impress girls.

Filmmakers have a number of ways to creatively express the facts. Editing, music and performance are tools used to manipulate an audience. Not giving them every exact detail is another – which can completely twist our interpretation of a story. As Charlie Lyne of UK movie blog Ultra Culture explains, “I thought it was reasonably deceptive of the movie Conviction to avoid mentioning that Kenny Waters, the guy Hilary Swank's character spent eighteen years fighting to exonerate, died six months after his release by falling off a wall.”

Not all biopic subjects disagree with the way filmmakers interpret their story. Stephen Morris of the band Joy Division gave enormous support to Control, the Anton Corbijn film that depicted the life and death of Ian Curtis, the band’s tortured singer. "None of it is true really,” Morris said. “It's sort of true, but you have to take liberties when you're making a film because the truth is too boring.” Indeed, the late David Frost, subject of the Oscar-winning Frost/Nixon, wholeheartedly agreed with the inclusion of a completely fictitious event in the film. Speaking about the made-up scene of Nixon making a drunken midnight call, he told The Daily Beast, “that was one of the bits of fiction. There’s 10 or 12 per cent fiction in the piece and that’s one of them. That, I think is [an] absolutely brilliant character study of Richard Nixon.”

Shaping culture

In his hyperbolic letter to Benedict Cumberbatch, Julian Assange described movies as “the most powerful and insidious shapers of public perception because they fly under the radar of conscious exclusion.” He has a point. Historians credit the massive success of The Birth of a Nation in 1915, with its distorted, racist view of history, as helping to revive the Ku Klux Klan in the US. Amadeus depicts Antonio Salieri as murderous in his jealousy of Mozart, when there’s little evidence at all indicating a rivalry between the two composers. In the pre-Internet era, with information less readily available to debunk filmic representations, this skewing of history might have been a bigger concern. But in the last decade, audiences have become far more attuned to looking past the face value of all types of media – ironically because they have been influenced by crusaders for transparency such as Julian Assange.

Maybe, from an audience’s perspective, it doesn’t really matter either way. As Chris Cooke, co-director of the UK’s Mayhem Film Festival, says when asked if he had ever been swayed by a biopic: “Probably not. It would be hard to imagine deciding to go to the cinema to see a film about someone I hated, or had researched and already formed an opinion of in the first place.”

Julian Assange’s main opposition to The Fifth Estate seems to stem from the fact that his legal problems are still ongoing and may affect the public's perception of him. From his perspective, perhaps, the film is simply a case of ‘too much too soon’. Peter Morgan, writer of Frost/Nixon and the more recent Rush, has stated that there is a certain benefit to letting the dust settle on a story. “If you have distance from the events, then your story can work as an analogy or parable, rather than its literal narrative,” he told “I won’t touch anything within ten years.”  After viewing The Fifth Estate, David Leigh, one of the writers on whose account it was based, agreed and stated that one of the movie’s problems was that “It falls into that little gap between ‘Oh we know all that, we remember it!’ and  ‘This is history, therefore interesting.’”

For those viewers wanting a thorough, even-handed account of the WikiLeaks phenomenon, perhaps Alex Gibney’s superlative documentary We Steal Secrets would be the best option. For those wanting more of a sexed-up, electro-soundtracked thrill ride, The Fifth Estate will provide that. But Julian Assange should take solace in knowing that, regardless, he was deemed culturally relevant enough to warrant a biopic in the first place.

The Fifth Estate is a thriller that’s built to entertain. Separating fact from fiction will ultimately fall to the audience (Benedict Cumberbatch speaking to the camera in character at the end of the film says as much); and that won’t be an easy task. But as the film’s director Bill Condon has said, “That’s the point of the film: complexity.”

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