WikiLeaks and the Movies

In a recent “dump” of diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, Putin and Medvedev were compared to Batman and Robin. The Slovenian philosophical rock star Slavoj Žižek has taken the simile further and compared Julian Assange, the spooky mastermind behind WikiLeaks, to the Joker in The Dark Knight. In Christopher Nolan’s twist on the Batman myth, the Joker is the symbol of truth at all costs, who wants to reveal Batman’s true identity as well as the fact that Harvey Dent, the admired district attorney, has become a murderous vigilante. Batman and the police commissioner cover up the truth in both cases, using the rationale that outing the facts would undermine the public’s trust. Isn’t that movie weirdly like the whey-faced Assange’s attempt to reveal the cover-ups and secret identities of the world’s Putins and Hillarys?

So, is Julian Assange a deranged Joker, or is WikiLeaks providing the basis for a sequel to All the President’s Men?

The movie I think about in relation to WikiLeaks is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 masterpiece The Conversation. It’s about Harry Caul (Gene Hackman, in one of his many superb, precise, understated performances), a surveillance expert, whose job is simply to collect and report information, though he agonizes over the consequences of what he reports. Caul’s conscience eventually gets the best of him and he refuses to turn in a tape of an ambiguous conversation. But, as we’ve thoroughly learned in our age of Facebook and WikiLeaks, the information will always out.

Not only does his conscience haunt him, Caul is obsessed with his own privacy. In the famous last scene of the movie, he rips up his own apartment, paranoid that he’s being bugged with the same expertise with which he has bugged others. I wonder if that scene has the same force for viewers now as it did when I first saw it. It’s easy to imagine a teenager shrugging, “What’s the big deal? Everything is always being taped. Come to think of it, he should set up a webcam and have a podcast.”

The distinction between private and public — so dear to old-timers like Caul and myself — has been radically transformed. There used to be phone booths because nobody would make a private call in public. Now, Clark Kent has to find somewhere else to take off his glasses. The world has become one big phone booth, with all of us crammed inside. Let’s face it, if Superman did exist, someone with a cellphone would have already captured the Daily Bugle reporter stripping down and posted the video on YouTube.

As prescient as The Conversation was about this brave new world where we’re always being watched, it was really a swan song of the old world’s conscience and humanity. There once was a principled difference between privacy and lying. Superheroes used to hide their identities because they wanted to protect their loved ones. Now, it’s just a big cover up.

It’s hard for this moviegoer not to wonder if the magic of the movies hasn’t thereby been dimmed. The movie theater, like a place of worship, is a public space of the most intense privacy. It’s public in that a crowd gathers there and is governed by shared rules of being together. Yet, in the darkness, as we munch our Milk Duds and commune with the giant glimmering images, the public around us fades away and each of us enters into a deep privacy of thought and emotion. If we no longer feel Caul’s intense commitment to privacy, a public space like the movie theater loses some of its allure and charm. Movies become just something we stream on our iPads.

In a world run by Dark Knights like Putin and Mubarak, we need a Joker like Assange. As the movies with their swirling newspapers remind us, we need to speak truth to and about power. But truth is one thing, and privacy another. Moreover, the bulk of information unleashed by WikiLeaks, much of it very trivial but some of it very damning, too rarely awakens our Caul consciences. The common response seems to be, “Oh, well. I always figured that kind of stuff was going on. Plus, I’m not going to read all that; I’ve got my blog to work on.” In other words, the real casualty of a surveilled world is not privacy but the public space of political action.

In the John Ford classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaper editor famously commands, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” But that holds only if the legend is one we can believe in. Maybe our problem is that our imaginations can no longer envision a credible heroism. It’s less that Putin is like Batman than that Batman has become much too much like Putin.

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