A real hero or villain?

A real hero or villain?

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 buildup to The Fifth Estate, the Bill Condon movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange.

Several recreations

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.

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 have sparked enormous discussion and remarkable pushback from WikiLeaks and its supporters.

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. But he wears white and black hats with equal ease. Handsome, dashing, conflicted and pursued, Assange is a kind of freelance spy who engages in black ops against powerful multinational interests.

Sure, the damage he inflicts is with a flick of the mouse rather than a fusillade of gunfire, but his credentials as international man of intrigue are unassailable.

“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.

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 movements.

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.

Critical outlook

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.”  Gibney is accused of selective editing and underappreciating the historic nature of the organisation’s work.

In an email, Kristinn Hrafnsson, a WikiLeaks spokesman, said, “I don’t recognise the Julian in these films, nor the fundamental essence of what we are doing.”

However, Condon made it clear that he was proud of his film. A narrative feature requires license to pack vast amounts of history into a commercially viable length, and Condon said the film was true to its subject, including its depiction of his alleged hypocrisy around organisational information and WikiLeaks.

“For a public figure, he is one of the most thin-skinned subjects I have ever seen,” Condon said. “He believes and advocates for transparency, except where he is concerned. He doesn’t realise it, but he has become the consummate tragic hero who sowed the seeds of his own demise.”

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