‘The Fifth Estate’ Meets the Fifth of November: Criticism of the Surveillance State in Pop Culture

By October 18, 2013
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Today, a new film hits theaters called The Fifth Estate, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange and deals directly with a new reality for citizens of the world, brought along through technological innovation: the increase in the use of surveillance by governments in the name of “national security.” Julian Assange has become something of a symbol for an entire segment of culture – or counterculture – that seeks to lift the veil on the powers of the world in an attempt to expose these secret systems to the people whom he feels these governments and organizations are accountable.

With the information recently brought to public light by leakers like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, The Fifth Estate definitely seems like it’s releasing at an opportune moment, further delving into a public conversation currently being had by both citizen and politician alike. But this isn’t the first film to be released at a time when many of these issues were being discussed publicly and fervently. One of the films in a similar window of release within the last decade was written by the Wachowskis, directed by James McTeigue, and loosely based upon a celebrated graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd. That film was called V For Vendetta.

The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange, hits theaters today.

The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange, hits theaters today.

In order to understand the connection here, let’s wind the clocks back to the ancient times of 2006. It’s been less than five years after the United States was attacked by al Qaeda on September 11th, 2001, and the United States is still reeling from the ongoing threat of terrorism. The media is flooded every day by changes in the so-called “terror threat level,” and even though things aren’t exactly great in today’s media or political climate, back then the language that both arenas dealt in seemed to be exclusive to one thing: fear.

By February of 2006, it comes to the public’s attention that since 2002, when fear had reached a fever pitch in the wake of the attack, the National Security Agency had been bypassing the court put into place by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and had begun establishing wiretaps on domestic communications in the name of national security. Civil libertarians were incensed at the fact that the United States, a nation founded on classical liberal traditions like individual freedom, limiting the power of the state, and freedom of the press and of electoral process, was engaging in decidedly anti-liberal behavior that expanded the ability of the state to observe the activity of its citizens, who in all cases cannot be considered a foreign threat.

In March of 2006, the US release of V For Vendetta came at perhaps its most possibly opportune moment, and emerges as a harsh critique of the surveillance state, while simultaneously issuing a warning about the consequences of its unrestrained power: “complete and total hegemonic domination.”

As a comic book film, V For Vendetta is unique in the sense that it is significantly modified from the original source in its writing content, but it’s aesthetics are almost entirely true to the original book, along with even the names of the vast majority of the players. As a result, it emerges as a rather shockingly realistic portrayal and is perhaps even more timely today than when it was initially released seven years ago (on a recent rewatch, for instance, my mouth was hanging open at a reference to historical events involving Syria, “before and after”).

For instance, when V hijacks the state-run television station to broadcast his quasi-manifesto to the citizens of tyrannical Britain, his words speak of an interesting relevance to both the time in which it was released and today. He says,

“…words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and, for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance, coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission.

How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Certainly there are those who are more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable. But again, truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty you need only look into a mirror.”

While nothing as drastic as the history posited in V For Vendetta has come to pass in America or in Britain, therein lies the film’s warning: if we, in a moment of weakness, abandon the ideals that we truly prize as citizens of a free nation and give into fear in the hopes of attaching to a promised security, then something like that depicted future is certainly more possible in our world. In that speech, V continues:

“I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you. And in your panic, you turned to the now High Chancellor Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent.”

2006's V For Vendetta took the bases of the comic and crafted an elaborate critique of increasing surveillance.

2006’s V For Vendetta took the bases of the comic and crafted an elaborate critique of increasing surveillance.

In a democracy such as ours in the United States, or any other that thrives on participation by the people, consent should never be silent. Nor should it even, really, be obedient. Our system can certainly be messy, as evidenced by recent squabbles on Capitol Hill in this country, but that’s the risk of democracy! Consensus on important matters of society is rarely completely clean, and as a matter of fact, representative democracy is one of the messiest forms of government in existence. That’s the price we pay, though, if we all demand to have a stake in the affairs of our country.

With The Fifth Estate dropping in theaters today, and attempting to simply present a series of events (though dramatized) so that the public can make up their own minds about the actions of Julian Assange (and by extension, people like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning), it’s always worth taking a hard look through whatever lens helps you wrap your head around a decidedly complicated issue. Perhaps revisiting V For Vendetta can help in remembering not just the dangers of a surveillance state, but the joys of the ideals that we, not just as citizens of a single country, but as citizens of the world see in principles like fairness, justice, and freedom. As we’re often reminded, those things are far more than words: they’re ways of life.

A lot of different ideologies have their own conceptions of how those ideals are embodied, but one thing that most people can agree upon is that they’re needed in their most basic and fundamental forms. Pieces of entertainment like V For Vendetta, derived from a work of allegorical fiction, or The Fifth Estate, derived from historical precedent, can both often help us to find new meaning or appreciation in things that we can, admittedly at times, take for granted. The best stories, whether they feature a man with access to incredible information, or a masked vigilante/terrorist/freedom fighter on the front lines to secure a better world for his fellow countrymen, always lead to the ignition of ideas in peoples’ minds.

And, in the immortal words of V that speaks to the limitless power of the human mind, “Ideas are bulletproof.”

Read our review of The Fifth Estate here.

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.