It’s no secret that WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, aren’t exactly crazy about Bill Condon’s WikiLeaks film The Fifth Estate. Last month, the anti-secrecy organization leaked a copy of the film’s script alongside a memo that called Condon’s movie “irresponsible, counterproductive and harmful.” WikiLeaks announced the memo with a tweet that briefly and critically appraises the movie — “As WikiLeaks was never consulted about the upcoming Hollywood film on us, we’ve given our advice for free: It’s bad.”
This week, WikiLeaks has thrown more fuel on the fire by posting a letter from Assange himself — purportedly sent to Fifth Estate star Benedict Cumberbatch immediately before the film began shooting in mid-January. The movie stars Cumberbatch as Assange.
Assange apparently wrote the letter after receiving a private missive from Cumberbatch. In Assange’s response, the fugitive activist notes that he is “fond” of Cumberbatch’s previous work — before tearing apart the film, which Assange calls a distorted, biased, “wretched” work of fiction that’s “based on a deceitful book by someone who has a vendetta against me and my organisation.” (The film was partially adapted from former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s 2011 book, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website.)
Assange calls Cumberbatch a “good” and “decent” person, but criticizes his decision to take on The Fifth Estate‘s starring role. “You will be used, as a hired gun, to assume the appearance of the truth in order to assassinate it,” he writes, saying that in the end, Cumberbatch is only “a jobbing actor who gets paid to follow the script, no matter how debauched.” He concludes by turning down Cumberbatch’s apparent request for a meeting: “By meeting with you, I would validate this wretched film, and endorse the talented, but debauched, performance that the script will force you to give.” (You can read the full letter at WikiLeaks.)
Cumberbatch addressed Assange’s letter Friday during a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything). Though his detailed, thoughtful response refrains from criticizing Assange directly, it also defends Condon’s film and explains why Cumberbatch wanted to take on the “contentious” character of Julian Assange.
Assange’s words, Cumberbatch writes, “gave [him] real cause for concern.” However, the letter also inspired Cumberbatch to examine his motivations for making The Fifth Estate: “He accuses me of being a ‘hired gun’ as if I am an easily bought cypher for right wing propaganda,” Cumberbatch says. “Not only do I NOT operate in a moral vacuum but this was not a pay day for me at all. I’ve worked far less hard for more financial reward. This project was important to me because of the integrity I wanted to bring to provocative difficult but ultimately timely and a truly important figure of our modern times.”
Cumberbatch goes on to applaud “the great successes of wikileaks and its extraordinary founder Julians Assange,” which he says are depicted accurately in The Fifth Estate – a “powerful, if dramatized entry point” for a discussion about WikiLeaks, in the actor’s words.
“There is only personal truth in my opinion, and the film should provoke debate and not consensus,” Cumberbatch writes in conclusion. “It should be enjoyable and ultimately empowering to realize that Julian has spearheaded a movement that is the foundations stone of The Fifth Estate, people journalism and what that is capable of including finding out the ‘truth’ for yourself.”
Read Cumberbatch’s full, lengthy response to Assange’s letter below.
To have the man you are about to portray ask you intelligently and politely not to do it gave me real cause for concern, however, it galvanized me into addressing why I was doing this movie. He accuses me of being a “hired gun” as if I am an easily bought cypher for right wing propaganda. Not only do I NOT operate in a moral vacuum but this was not a pay day for me at all. I’ve worked far less hard for more financial reward. This project was important to me because of the integrity I wanted to bring to provocative difficult but ultimately timely and a truly important figure of our modern times. The idea of making a movie about someone who so far removed from my likeness or situation who brought about an ideal through personal sacrifice that has changed the way we view both social media, the power of the individual to have a voice in that space, and be able to question both the hypocrisies and wrongdoings of organizations and bodies of powerful people that rule our lives… This resonated deeply with my beliefs in civil liberty, a healthy democracy, and the human rights of both communities and individuals to question those in authority. I believe that the film, quite clearly, illuminates the great successes of wikileaks and its extraordinary founder Julians Assange. As well as, examining the personalities involved and what become a dysfunctional relationship within that organization. While the legacy of his actions and the organizations continue to evolve and only history will be the true judge of where this is leading us. The Fifth Estate is a powerful, if dramatized, entry point for a discussion about this extraordinary lurch forward in our society. I wanted to create a three dimensional portrait of a man far more maligned in the tabloid press than he is in our film to remind people that he is not just the weird, white haired Australian dude wanted in Sweden, hiding in an embassy behind Harrods. But a true force to be reckoned with, achieved the realization of the great ideal. I’m proud to be involved in tackling such a contentious character and script. There is only personal truth in my opinion, and the film should provoke debate and not consensus. It should be enjoyable and ultimately empowering to realize that Julian has spearheaded a movement that is the foundations stone of The Fifth Estate, people journalism and what that is capable of including finding out the “truth” for yourself.
The Fifth Estate opens Oct. 18.