If ever there was a film that tried to have its cake and eat it, it’s this Bill Condon-directed thriller that attempts to pull the curtain back on WikiLeaks and its enigmatic founder Julian Assange.
In promoting The Fifth Estate, two separate posters have been produced featuring a portrait of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Assange, one with the word ‘hero’ on it and on the other the word ‘traitor’ – a piece of marketing that inadvertently speaks to the film’s central problem.
Most of us have an opinion on how good or bad for the world WikiLeaks has been, but in trying so earnestly to appear fair and balanced, Condon has ended up sucking the dramatic life out of the film.
Condon presumably had ambitions for this to be All The President’s Men for the internet age, but The Fifth Estate actually feels like a digital cousin of The Social Network in its depiction of a bromance being poisoned by the monster that brought them together.
The Fifth Estate itself is the moniker given to the rise of hacktivism, a more radical form of traditional journalism (the fourth estate), and the film underlines this by charting the history of news communication in the title sequence, from the invention of writing to the birth of the net. The fourth and fifth estates are uneasy bedfellows, however, and the movie is at its best when laying bare the ethical differences between Assange and the more established news organisations over protecting privacy.
The film centres on the unprecedented coalition The Guardian, Germany’s Der Spiegel and The New York Times formed with WikiLeaks in 2010 to publish the biggest leak of information in history. It was a mammoth story that sent shock waves throughout the world, not least of which in America where the thousands of classified documents had originated.
While the papers followed traditional means of journalism by redacting names in order to protect their identity, Assange pushed ahead with publishing the documents in their unexpurgated form and in so doing plunged the final nail in the coffin of his partnership with Daniel Domscheit-Berg, on whose book Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website the film is partly based.
Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer flash back to Domscheit-Berg’s first encounter with Assange, their burgeoning friendship and numerous successes in bringing corporations to heel. But as WikiLeaks grows more influential, their professional relationship and personal kinship slowly erodes over just how far they should go in the name of transparency.
There’s a fascinating story to be told here of how the beauty of genius can turn ugly when tainted by hubris and paranoia, but The Fifth Estate is too afraid to get off the fence to really give the subject the treatment it deserves. Assange has very publicly denounced the film as Hollywood propaganda (he similarly tore into Alex Gibney’s acclaimed documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks), although he’d be better served criticising its narrative failings.
The film has its moments, such as when Domscheit-Berg states that WikiLeaks doesn’t edit because “editing is bias”, before Assange slaps the headline ‘Collateral Murder’ over video footage it’s received of American forces gunning down unarmed civilians in Iraq. However, the film essentially hangs itself by its own petard by following genre conventions and using serious dramatic licence to illustrate a story supposedly about the ‘truth’.
Tech-movies have often struggled to avoid looking a bit naff when trying to get across the ‘science bit’ and this doesn’t fare any better. Condon falls back on using flashy camerawork and gimmicky effects to explain what Assange and co are up to, but it ends up getting in the way and actually muddies the narrative.
The Fifth Estate‘s biggest strength is its superb cast, led by Cumberbatch’s uncanny portrayal of Assange. It’s doubtful anyone knows the real Julian Assange, but Cumberbatch certainly gets the mannerisms spot on, whether it’s the Australian accent or twitchy body language, and seems to capture that unique freedom fighter charisma he exudes.
Daniel Brühl, so good as Formula 1 driver Nikki Lauder in Rush, is impressive as Domscheit-Berg; an insider who slowly turns into an outsider as he and Assange become more estranged. Meanwhile, David Thewlis is as reliable as ever as Guardian reporter Nick Davies, although he seems to be basing his portrayal on movieland journalists instead of real life ones.
Such performances deserve a better film than this. In time, a definitive account of this most 21st Century of tales will undoubtedly emerge; for now we’ll have to make do with this tepid and underwhelming slide show.