How many airline meals can you eat on a return trip from Istanbul, Turkey to Auckland, New Zealand? How many hours can you sleep? How many times can you clamber over your co-passenger in the aisle seat to visit the toilet or stretch your atrophying muscles? How many movies can you watch? I lost count, but I can tell you that Singapore Airlines are marginally better than their Malaysian neighbours in most departments – especially their inflight entertainment package.
|Interesting as cinema - |
but seemed to lose
sight of the main point
The films I watched, going and coming over half the world’s circumference have all faded from memory – except one, and I want to tell you about it. ‘The Fifth Estate’ is a dramatization of three years in the life of maverick Australian computer genius Julian Assange and his Internet whistle-blowing creation Wikileaks. The film, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch in the leading role, was released in October 2013 with very little media attention. Had it not been for Singapore Air’s inflight movie programme, and the ineffable boredom of twenty-plus hours in a cattle-class cabin, I would have missed it for sure.
As cinema entertainment, the film is less than riveting. Assange himself apparently refused to cooperate in its making, calling it ‘a massive propaganda attack.’ According to Forbes magazine, ‘The Fifth Estate’ was the biggest movie flop of 2013. In what some might consider a sad case of insensitive and offensive political incorrectness, they entitled their list ’10 Box Office Turkeys of 2013.’
Well, that’s Forbes, whose owners apparently call their magazine ‘The Capitalist Tool’, so you probably wouldn’t expect them to be awfully sympathetic to Assange and his revolutionary website. I don’t know what your criteria are when choosing a movie for an evening at the cinema, but media hype and box-office takings have never been high on my personal list. I haven’t seen, and have no intention of seeing The Hunger Games 2, Iron Man 3, Despicable Me 2, Fast and Furious 6, or any of the other Hollywood serial blockbusters targeting the appetites of dysfunctional adolescent US males.
Who needs to see dystopian post-apocalyptic future worlds on screen – when we’re surrounded by dystopia in the here and now? On the other hand, if those gremlins in the White House and the Pentagon are precipitating the world into apocalypse now, that’s something I do want to know about – and I applaud the heroic efforts of non-conformists like Assange, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning in bringing Washington's dirty secrets out into the open.
The biggest problem with the film, in my opinion, is that it focuses too much on the character of Assange himself. That’s to be expected, of course, in a Hollywood movie. In the end, as with The Social Network, about Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, story-telling becomes the object of the exercise. You need character development, human interest and some kind of moral or social message. If you want to see a documentary about Wikileaks and its impact on global politics, don’t expect to find it here.
Unfortunately, when historical truths are glossed over, distorted or forgotten, cinematic fiction often becomes the accepted version. News media seem to have pretty much lost interest in Julian Assange. He has been holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since June 2012, besieged by local constabulary tasked with apprehending him so that he can be extradited to Sweden for questioning over allegations that he raped or molested (you’d think it would be clear one way or the other) two women aged 26 and 31.
Circumstances surrounding events in Sweden in 2010 are murky to say the least. At first the case was thrown out by the Chief Public Prosecutor but police apparently continued investigations and it was reopened. MPs in Sweden recently called on prosecutors to travel to London to conduct their questioning – but they refused. Assange claims to have text messages from the two women saying that Swedish police encouraged them to bring charges of rape. Whatever the truth of the matter, Assange denies the accusations and believes there is a plot to have him extradited from Sweden to the United States where far more serious charges will be brought against him – with the threat of life imprisonment or even execution.
It’s hard to know. Undoubtedly Uncle Sam and his current administration were seriously embarrassed by Wikileaks’ revelations about their activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their spying on leaders of supposedly allied countries. It would be perfectly understandable if they wanted to get Assange and shut him up for good, one way or another. The matter is complicated somewhat by his being an Australian citizen – though the government of that democratic nation seems conspicuously unwilling to stick up for him.
One thing the film does demonstrate very clearly is the way Assange’s enemies (and they must be many and powerful) have managed to shift the debate from the actual revelations about US skulduggery, to the character of the man himself. The concluding scenes of The Fifth Estate suggest that Assange is an egotist and showman, more interested in self-aggrandisement than in truth and justice. Police action in Sweden and the UK has painted him as a serial rapist trying to avoid the legal consequences of his depraved behaviour. The United States Government portrays him as a virtual murderer with the blood of patriotic US personnel on his hands.
News media, for the most part, accepted the spin and disseminated it – before subsequently losing interest. Public attention was diverted from serious questions such as whether US military personnel should actually be in Iraq or Afghanistan; what is the true nature of their activity in those countries; and whether anyone in the world is safe from surveillance by the US government.
A similar pattern of behaviour is evident in the treatment meted out to two of Wikileaks’ sources, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Elizabeth (aka Bradley) Manning. Snowden has been in Russia since June 2013, having been offered temporary sanctuary. This was necessitated by the US Government’s revoking his passport and charging him with espionage and theft of government documents. A recent article in the Washington Post questions Snowden’s commitment to democracy and open government on the grounds that he has taken sanctuary in a country accused of violating these principles. The implication is that the guy would better demonstrate commitment to truth and freedom by returning to the USA where he could be tried and put away for the rest of his life, as seems to be the case with poor Chelsea Elizabeth.
Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning is the 26 year-old US private who turned over vast quantities of military documents relating to the conduct of American military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. In July 2013 he/she was convicted of espionage and theft and sentenced to thirty-five years in prison. The day after sentencing, Manning made a public announcement that he now wished to be known as Chelsea and would be undergoing hormone therapy to confirm what he/she considered his/her true identity as a woman.
Well, it’s easy to see how some might consider that Manning’s personal problems would account for erratic behaviour and explain to some degree why he would do what he did with those confidential military documents. It’s easy to understand how some, within the news media and US society at large might want to focus on Manning’s sexual identity and lose sight of the greater issue of what those documents actually revealed.
The Wikileaks story, as it is currently unfolding, raises an interesting question about individuals who achieve beyond the limits of normal human expectations. The high achiever with feet of clay is axiomatic. Should Bill Clinton be remembered for having presided over the longest period of peacetime economic expansion in American history – or for having sex with that woman? If the current Prince of Wales ever becomes King Charles III of Great Britain, will we want to think of him as a committed champion of the environment and other worthy causes, or as a guy who once compared himself to a tampon in the service of his mistress? Shane Warne is arguably one of the greatest bowlers in the history of the game of cricket – but one could easily tell a different story by focusing on his foul mouth, marital infidelities, use of banned substances and the taint of match-fixing.
It takes a certain kind of character to blow the whistle on an employer. Most of us put up with the dirt we see in our workplaces. We turn a blind eye, rationalise it away, or conspire to become part of the problem in the interests of career advancement or mere job security. It takes rare courage to speak out, to go to the media or some other outside party and divulge corporate corruption and evil-doing. A healthy society needs to act on information thus obtained to ensure that corporations and governments are truly accountable for their actions. Unfortunately, all too often, the whistle-blower is denigrated and punished, and the real criminals escape to continue their wicked ways.
As an interesting comparison with the foregoing, there’s another computer whizz-kid global citizen I’ve been keeping an eye on over the last year or so – a certain German entrepreneur born Kim Schmitz. Schmitz, like Bradley Manning, also changed his name, though not his sexual identity. Now known as Kim Dotcom, he is resident in New Zealand, having taken refuge there from the long arm of US law, which was pursuing him to answer charges of copyright infringement related to his highly successful file-sharing site, Megaupload.
Unlike Snowden and Assange, whose search for sanctuary was denied by all of the so-called free nations of the world, Dotcom was welcomed with open arms (albeit in conditions of some secrecy) by the government of New Zealand, who granted him residency under the ‘investor plus category’ – reserved for immigrants undertaking to invest $10 million in the country; this in spite of a history of convictions in Germany for computer fraud, data espionage, insider trading and embezzlement.
After being granted residency in New Zealand, Dotcom was convicted in absentia by a Hong Court for similar offences, but the New Zealand government declined to extradite him because it did not consider the crimes sufficiently serious. Upsetting the United States of America, however, is a different kettle of fish, and the slippery gentleman was arrested at his Auckland mansion by NZ police in January 2012 in a high profile operation involving, reportedly, 76 officers and two helicopters. According to Wikipedia, ‘assets worth $17 million were seized including eighteen luxury cars, giant screen TVs and works of art. Dotcom's bank accounts were frozen denying him access to US$175m (NZ$218m) in cash, the contents of 64 bank accounts world-wide, including accounts in New Zealand, Government bonds and money from numerous PayPal accounts.’
Since then, Dotcom has been released from jail, a court decided that seizure of his funds and property had been illegal, he is seeking compensation from the NZ Government, and has made claims that the US Government prosecuted him in return for contributions to President Obama from certain Hollywood studios. He has subsequently opened a new website called ‘Mega’, released a music album and two singles, and founded a political party. When I was in New Zealand in January I saw several city buses sporting large portraits of Dotcom advertising his album. Clearly the man has a gift for self-preservation and publicity.
So what makes him different from Julian Assange? The obvious factor is money. Dotcom is a multi-millionaire whose wealth has enabled him to buy refuge with a respected member of the international community of nations, pay for the best legal representation and command the assistance of municipal mayors, ministers of the Crown and even the Prime Minister himself. Assange, on the other hand, made little or no money from his Internet activities, lived out of a suitcase, was dependent on the goodwill of friends and supporters, and, when the chips were down, became a hunted man with the international community ganging up to hound him.
A less obvious difference between Assange and Dotcom is the political leader under whose wing they are sheltering. Dotcom seems to have bought the protection of a capitalist government, of a prime minister who is the privileged friend of big business, whose ethical standards are, apparently, up for negotiation. Assange, in contrast, found that, when all had deserted him, he was offered protection by the president of a country who has fought for its national interests, reduced its high levels of poverty, indigence and unemployment, and been re-elected for a third term in office with an increased majority. Rafael Correa of Ecuador may not be the US’s favourite neighbour, but he is doing the world and the cause of democracy a great service.