It’s a well-known fact among my family and friends that I like Benedict Cumberbatch. Sometimes, I find him quite attractive, but actually most of the time I like watching him precisely because I don’t really notice that he is, or isn’t, good looking. I enjoy his ability to portray emotions well beyond the surface of his skin; I love the visceral way he uses his body, embarrassment be damned; and I’m continuously impressed by his ability to make me forget, despite that famously elongated otter-sleek face of his, that I’m watching Benedict Cumberbatch. I’ve seen him in nearly everything he’s publicly performed, so last night I watched The Fifth Estate, just to round out the Cumberbatch back-catalog, so to speak.
Before I plunged into the Assange madness, however, I decided to watch the BBC’s little biopic on Stephen Hawking, named, appropriately, Hawking. Benedict Cumberbatch is an ideal actor for this role. Not only is he believably awkward as the young Hawking, but his utilization of that awkwardness to convey the scientist’s gradual paralysis was horrifying to watch (I mean this in the best way). The film is short, covering a brief period while Hawking earned his doctorate at Cambridge. Using his work with Relativity, the story lightly explores the irony of a man with limited time figuring out how to explain the way time works. There is nothing particularly notable about Hawking. It isn’t Benedict Cumberbatch’s best performance, though it’s very good, nor is it the greatest story ever told about a scientific discovery. But that’s what I liked about it: it is simple and quiet and let me make up my own mind.
The day I finished Hawking, I also watched The Fifth Estate (what can I say… I had time off). I was actually prepared to like it. I know very little about Wikileaks beyond the headlines it made. I had no investment in the story being “right” or “wrong,” in Assange being a villain or a hero. I was looking to see a good performance in an interesting movie, and that was it.
That wasn’t, obviously, what I ended up with, or I wouldn’t be writing this. The Fifth Estate is ultimately a rather dull movie, though this isn’t Benedict Cumberbatch’s fault. The basic story is this: Daniel Berg, a programmer, hooks up with Assange just as he is beginning to take Wikileaks to the wider world. Eventually, they have a falling out over how the release of sensitive information should work when innocent people might be hurt. Assange, as portrayed, argues that the higher purpose of their work is to put information out there for the public, whole and complete, and that if individuals are inadvertently harmed in the process, it is for the greater good. Berg, apparently, disagrees and feels that the information should not be released until names can be redacted and innocent people protected. The movie doesn’t come down, officially, on either side, though I suppose it ultimately sides with Berg.
I suppose. That I don’t really know is because, like many films made about current events, it doesn’t say much of anything. Assumedly, this is in an attempt to appear “even-handed,” but that just makes it a perfect example of why I generally loathe biopics.
Wikileaks is a tremendously interesting topic, and its mission raises fundamental questions. The most primary of these, to me, is this one: Wikileaks insists that the purpose of the site is to provide transparency in government, and that this is essential to a working democracy, but is this even a good idea?
As far as I know, there has never been a working large-scale government of any type that operated with complete transparency. What Assange is proposing as necessary, and what he and others like him are possibly creating, is a form of government literally unknown to anyone. It’s not democracy as ever conceived or practiced. No major government has ever given out its war plans, its communiques, its mistakes and its secret triumphs, with absolute crystal clarity to every single one of its citizens.
So what does it mean if we start to insist that our governors be prepared to reveal everything they ever do, or say, or write down, or speak into a telephone, or transmit through the airwaves? What will that do to the ability of the governing body to govern? What will it mean for those being governed?
I want to be clear when I say that I don’t have an answer to these questions. I have no idea whether what Assange and Wikileaks propose is even possible, much less preferable. I have no context for this sort of government. None of us do.
I think that’s worth worrying about. We have people reshaping our entire conception of what government is or does, and those people were never elected to office. Right now, men like Assange are fundamentally altering what democracy (or any other form of government) looks like for the foreseeable future. I don’t think it’s possible to go back to a world where this concept doesn’t exist, so we are going to have to deal with it. The Founding Fathers would probably suggest we have a conversation about this.
But apparently, what I should be worried about is whether or not Julian Assange is an asshole. The film’s premise is that he’s not a particularly likable human being, and that because of this, I should be wary of what he’s doing. In other words: if he’s not nice, his ideas aren’t nice. If he were friendlier, and easier to understand, and perhaps less into interesting hairstyles, then he would be someone I could trust to decide the future of the entire world. But since he’s weird and off-putting and prone to hogging the spotlight, I should beware.
Bullshit. This is dangerous nonsense.
Let’s return to Hawking for a moment. Imagine if the movie suggested that the value of the Big Bang theory should be determined by the likability of the man proposing it. I assume Stephen Hawking is a relatively likable guy. I don’t really know. But what I do know is this: the Big Bang theory either is or isn’t scientifically valid based on SCIENCE, and that has nothing to do with whether or not Hawking is a good friend, or a good father, or a good husband. Those things don’t matter one damn bit. They just don’t.
And whether or not Julian Assange is a likable man, or a rapist, or just misunderstood, also doesn’t matter one damn bit when we’re trying to determine the ultimate value of what Wikileaks does, because that will be determined by HISTORY (in the big-H sense), and HISTORY is never about a single person.
Wikileaks exists because it was natural progression for it to exist. If Julian Assange hadn’t decided to create a website where people could leak classified information anonymously, someone else on the internet absolutely would have had to do it, because that’s what the internet allows people to do (at least in theory, NSA). It allows people to post information in relative anonymity to an audience that spans the world. Assange’s idea is a product of his time and place. Wikileaks was inevitable, and now that the cat is out of the bag, there is no more value to linking how we think about it to Assange’s likability than there is to assigning the importance of World War I to whether or not one admires Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassin.
Obviously, Assange matters on a historical front. The people who begin big things matter to history. But in terms of the broader question of the rightness or wrongness of government transparency through the mass leaking of information to the public, his personality quirks are totally irrelevant. They don’t help me answer the big questions raised by his actions. Even if Julian Assange spends the rest of his life locked up in some embassy or other, the fact is that Wikileaks created a chain of events that he cannot stop or even really influence anymore. Edward Snowden did not need Julian Assange to assist him in releasing information, because the idea of giving a voice to government whistle blowers is so powerful that it now eclipses the fate of any one person. Which is not to say that Julian Assange’s fate is unimportant to Assange or that we shouldn’t care what happens to him. Of course we should, and I do. I just mean that there are issues here that are much bigger than whether or not Julian Assange receives a fair trial, and this film didn’t even begin to address them. It didn’t even raise them.
Biopics generally suffer from this problem. They reduce the grandest ideas in history to the men who suggested them, and then ask us to care through the lens of a single individual’s (inevitably exaggerated) personality. I understand why they do this, of course. Humanizing grand events can be helpful in understanding them. But a single person’s goodness or badness rarely matters after the events, if it ever did. It’s the cult of celebrity applied to history. We don’t judge the value of The Declaration of Independence based on Jefferson’s questionable personal beliefs, and we shouldn’t be basing the way we think about Wikileaks and whistle blowers and government transparency on Julian Assange’s personal problems.
Very quickly, most biopics become stories about the physical or emotional quirks an actor can reproduce, because they don’t actually have anything to say beyond: “look at this crazy guy!” I like Ray Charles’ music, but damn was Ray a dull film. So was Walk the Line, if you must know. I was bored by Luther, Frida, and The Aviator. The King’s Speech was, at best, cute. There are a few good ones: Gandhi, My Left Foot, and Amadeus spring to mind. But mostly, biopics are about an actor mimicking someone, and that’s not even really great acting. Great acting happens because of the story being told, not the precise reproduction of the way someone walks or talks or moves their head. Benedict Cumberbatch supposedly nailed the cadence and gestures of Julian Assange. If he’d not gotten the Assange lisp-thing down perfectly, would that change the importance of the issue at hand? The beauty of Hawking, as opposed to The Fifth Estate, was that at least it lacked the pretension to historical sweep. It didn’t ask me to judge Hawking’s work based on Hawking’s personal life. It may not be a great film, but I can admire its aim. The Fifth Estate wants to tell me something important by presenting me with trivia about Assange’s weird dancing, his childhood (apparently fictionalized anyway), and his damned hair. So in the end, it told me nothing that mattered about an issue that is changing the history of the world, and that pisses me off to no end.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s next film is a biopic about Alan Turing, the man who helped crack the German codes in World War II and who, because he was a homosexual, was chemically castrated by the British government for his trouble. I’m sure he’ll inhabit the part, but I worry about the script. Will there be a point, beyond simply making people more aware of Alan Turing? I hope it will actually raise some big questions, because I’m pretty sure that there were a few inherent in that time and in that man and in that story.
I’m not holding out hope. But in the meantime, if someone would like to fast-forward history a bit and let me know how this whole “transparency” thing works out, that would be awesome! I’m really curious, and I still don’t feel like I know. And it strikes me as sort of important.