Tuesday, February 11, 2014

THE FIFTH ESTATE: A Failure Analysis

THE FIFTH ESTATE (October 2013) DIR Bill Condon
Budget $28 US Gross $3.3 (No Worldwide BO Numbers)

A dramatic thriller based on real events that reveals the quest by super-hacker Julian Assange, to "expose the deceptions and corruptions of power that turned an Internet upstart into the 21st century's most fiercely debated organization" (producer's quote). The movie is based primarily on a book about the events by Daniel Berg, Julian Assange's compatriot who turned on Assange at the end.

For a movie produced by Dreamworks and distributed by Touchstone, there should have been a tighter grip on the well-known rules of successful story structure. This box office flop indicates that something was seriously wrong with the story, especially since it came from two powerhouses and the production values are very high and acting is very good. [Yes, I wish studios would follow the precepts in my book The Moral Premise. For a $20 and a five-hour investment they'd make millions if they followed the simple precepts learned through the ages.]

Here's the moral premise that the film espouses, followed by an explanation. I am not familiar enough with the real facts of the real story or with Wikileaks to extend this analysis to the real thing. This analysis is strictly about the movie, which embraces this moral premise statement:

Keeping any secrets leads to dystopian corruption and tyranny; but
Revealing all secrets leads to utopian justice and freedom.

There are two obvious reasons why this movie failed, in spite of the stellar production values. No, there are a least three reasons. In order of significance (to this blog, at least), they are:


Again, here's the moral premise that the film espouses:

Keeping any secrets leads to dystopian corruption and tyranny; but
Revealing all secrets leads to utopian justice and freedom.

As explained in No. 2 below, THE FIFTH ESTATE has all the earmarks of a tragedy and yet the filmmakers try to make it out as redemptive, with Assange painted as a mad but noble hero. This never works, even when you have an A-List actor playing the lead: e.g. SEVEN POUNDS. Tragedies can have a true moral premise if the story is treated as a tragedy without an attempt at making wrong-headed behavior good. (Moral relativism lasts only so long before your face is covered in spittle.) 

The movie portrays Assange as a manipulative megalomanic, ["a psychopathological disorder characterized by delusional fantasies or power, relevance,  or omnipotence characterized by an inflated sense of self-esteem and overestimation of power (1)]. Assange's decisions and behavior are revealed as anti-social, untrustworthy, manically self-centered and manipulative. But the movie also elevates Assange as a noble and savior and suggests throughout and at the end that we should all emulate his courage. This is made clear in a final reflective dialogue scene between Daniel Berg and Guardian reporter Nick Davies. It's here that the two attempt to establish the moral ground upon which Assange and the movie are based. 
BERG: I guess everyone has secrets. Scars. Moments in time that shape them. Some we can get past. Some we can't. There was a moment when everything was possible. [Note the nod to utopian ideals, which begins this dialogue and ends with it.] We changed the world. He changed the world.   
DAVIES: But then he made it all about him.  
BERG: It always was. Only someone so obsessed with his own secrets could have come up with a way to reveal everyone else's.  
DAVIES: You know there was a time when British papers couldn't report on parliamentary debate. But then a few very brave men started printing pamphlets and leaking these debates. And, uh, well, I believe the men were hanged. But the public saw these pamphlets and demanded access and the modern fourth estate was born, from the passion and the vision of these few brave souls. 
BERG: Who were hanged.   
DAVIES: Who were hanged. And now we find ourselves in the same position. A new information revolution infinitely more powerful than the last, a fifth estate, seemingly hell-bent on destroying its predecessors. All the old models dying faster than the new can replace them.  Which is why we need more brave souls. You and Julian have charted a course through all this chaos, pointed at the truth. And yes, the tyrants of this world should beware. Knowing that now, we have the power to demand the information that one day soon will wash them all away [A final utopian nod]. 
Notice how the dialogue, which attempts to explain why Assange, although a manipulative liar, is a hero because his end purpose was justice. This reflects the utopian ideal, which conveniently avoids the ubiquitous presence of manipulative, dystopian evil. Yes, the utopian ideal that ignores evidence to the contrary has followers...clearly the filmmakers. But the general public is aware (at least subliminally) that ends never justify the means, and that secret information from news sources, especially when anonymous revealed in the raw, are easily misinterpreted, misapplied, misunderstood by the public... and can be easily used for evil purposes by opportunists. A good reporter with a trusted research staff solves these problems... or most of them.

The Natural Law of keeping secrets dictates that they must be kept unless there in injustice created by keeping it, and, then, only grave harm can be avoided only by divulging the truth. And further, to reveal a secret requires a grave and proportionate reason.

Each  member of the audience knows they (individually) have secrets that if revealed would destroy them and their loved ones, not so much because of wrong actions but because the debates that occur in their heads (or in parliament) would be misconstrued, and manipulated for wrong-headed or misplaced purposes. Privately in our heads, in our homes with family members, and honest debate should allow us to consider all alternatives before acting. The cables released by government officials, while some were uncomfortable, nonetheless reflect this debate in search of truth. The debate (even in its extreme propositions) should not be constructed as wrong, but as good. It's the outcome of the debate, the actions, that should be judged. But even then, witgout context, an accurate interpretation is difficult.  

The typical person in the audience knows that the ability of a person (as well as an institution) to keep secrets (the right of privacy), while it can be evil, can also be good. While some things done in secret are wrong, many things done in secret benefit the common good. Secrets, per se, are not evil. But that is the assumption Assange and the film make. This rings as false, and the audience turns away. 


Although the filmmaker's protagonist (Assange) is passionate, active, and has a physical goal (good things for a protagonist to have), the goal (to reveal unredacted, secret government cables) is not universally accepted as a noble one. (Successful films are always about universal truths, not half-hidden or parochial truths.) Although Assange is imperfect (something all protagonist should be at the beginning of a story), he doubles down and embraces his imperfections even more, thus leaving us with a tragedy.  Tragedies rarely do good at the box office because people want stories and examples of true, sacrificial redemption. And while there is a scene wherein Assange whines about sacrificing his relationship with his son whom he hasn't seen in decades, Assange comes off more as a selfish brat who really doesn't care about his son. 

Berg's character, however, does change (a desirable aspect of a protagonist), and we are drawn to sympathize with Berg, and root for him to put limits on Assange and establish a just relationship with his girlfriend, Anker. But Berg is not a proactive or even passionate character searching for a goal we can root for.  He is mostly reactive to Assange, Davies, and Anker. Thus, both characters violate clear rules of acceptable protagonists, and the target audience rejects them both. 


The first half of the movie is difficult to follow. We're not sure what Assange wants, or what Daniel's motivations are for helping. I think the filmmakers became obsessed with the difficulty of making  a movie where something invisible (data) plays an important role. The result in a lot of fast cutting, and linear story gaps. Perhaps the filmmakers felt the audience could fill in these many gaps because of all the news coverage about the real events. But, early on, it was not clear how the traditional linear news business works, nor how Wikileaks differs. The film poorly explains these critical elements, and then spends a great deal of time revealing how sources remain anonymous. Thus, the audience is left with an anonymous story to track, rather than a linear, explicit one. This is not a moral premise issue, but it is a hook and log line issue. 

The hook behind Wikileaks, at least as first conceived, is that all sources would be anonymous and thus protected. The problem, as the film illustrates, is that there is no editing and no verification or context interpretation. Thus, the raw facts are not contaminated with false conclusions, equivocations and other linguistic fallacies that confuses the facts with truth. And this IS a moral issue. But the FIFTH ESTATE hook (the unusual way news is gathered and disseminated) is only understood if traditional news gathering and reporting is first understood. 

(1) Definition from Wikipedia.

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