The Fifth Estate

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“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. But if you give him a mask, he will tell you the truth.” – Oscar Wilde

“True friends stab you in the front.” – Oscar Wilde

The first thing man needs to know is the truth about himself; without that self-knowledge, his perception will remain tainted against his fellow man. What use has a man for a mask to know the truth about himself?

Of course, poetic license is going to be employed with all movies based on real life characters and historic events. Of course, letting the truth be known across the globe without editing – or context – is a controversial topic in itself. The tagline featured in the movie poster to the left expresses the implicit message left undeveloped in the movie.

First, Julian Assange’s past remains something of a mystery. He divulges stories of how his hair turned white in a manner similar to the Joker and his scars. The stories could just as likely be true as false or some mixture of both, the point of which is for Assange to create some mystique about himself. That he wants to generate this mystique is somewhat revealing, but the audience still doesn’t know him and so his secrets largely remain intact. His motives, however, become clear as his brainchild becomes an information powerhouse.

The movie opens with a history-in-news montage which covers everything from type-setting to the blogosphere. The montage is one half of a bookend. The other half is a bit of dialogue between the protagonist, Daniel and a newspaper editor which explains the title, and thus the movie’s empathy for the characters.

In keeping with the spirit of internet truth, I quote wikipedia, “The term ‘Fifth Estate’ has no fixed meaning, but is used to describe any class or group in society other than the clergy (First Estate), the nobility (Second Estate), the commoners (Third Estate), and the press (Fourth Estate). The concept of a fifth estate is most strongly associated with journalists and media outlets (including the blogosphere) that are seen as being outside of or in opposition to the mainstream media, or official press. It may also include political groups or other groups that are seen as outside the mainstream in their views.”

The movie takes a mosaic view of the complexities both in the computer hacking subculture and the media’s morality. It starts off quickly with a half-introduction to the characters, who largely remain underdeveloped outside of their contrast to one another. A fast-paced is kept for two thirds of the movie, which throws out lots of information and computer generated cyber-space parallels of the characters’ own emotional attachment to their work. It doesn’t offer much in the way of new information after the first 20 minutes, and has little in the way of real tension until the third act.

“The Fifth Estate” broke a critical rule of story-telling; be good first, then aim for great. It tried to be great first, and ended up being lukewarm. Like so many movies, it would have been much better off keeping things simple. There’s plenty of material to work with in the real-life controversy.

Is it really accurate that a man speaks truth from behind a mask? While a mask offers protection from reprisal when speaking the truth against someone else, it also affords rationalizations against knowing the truth about ourselves. The implicit message of the quote from Wilde, which is referenced by Julian Assange, is that the only thing keeping a moral man from telling the truth is fear of reprisal. But wouldn’t a moral man fear costly lies more than reprisal? More importantly, with such a platform and anonymity, wouldn’t immoral men take advantage? Who is the gatekeeper? Who enforces truth?


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