‘The Fifth Estate’ movie review: ‘Tasty’ but ‘opaque’ version of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange
Late in the game during The Fifth Estate, Twilight director Bill Condon’s long-awaited return to helming real movies, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) glowers at close confidante Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) and hisses, “How much time you can spend with a person and still have no idea who they are.” If only Condon knew we’d be wondering the same thing about the tasty, if opaque, version of Assange he’s asking us to consider.
Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer (who adapted WikiLeaks books by Domscheit-Berg and The Guardian journalists Luke Harding and David Leigh) practically luxuriate in the mysterious and contradictory motives that make Assange such a fascinating character, until we realize all The Fifth Estate has to say about Julian Assange is that he’s mysterious and contradictory.
The director gets better mileage from sheer storytelling velocity and an electric sense of witnessing history as it’s being written (or posted). That said, all the slick craftsmanship in the world can’t lessen the frustration of watching a deliberately unknowable subject whisk us through a series of events, ticked off with much energy and little insight.
At a fundamental character level, The Fifth Estate understands what’s so intriguing about Julian Assange. One can only speculate if he was ever genuinely motivated by an activist’s desire to hold governments and corporations accountable for their behavior or if he merely gets off on his ability to make them shudder at the prospect of his next document dump. And even if his motives are pure, is he being reckless by not holding back the release of information that could cause harm to blameless individuals?
Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange: ‘A performance of great technical precision’
As Assange, Benedict Cumberbatch revels in these oily ambiguities. Speaking with an Australian accent and given to toothless smirks of smug superiority, Cumberbatch takes immediate ownership of the character, giving a performance of great technical precision. His stringy, white hair, puffy mouth and curious demeanor suggests The Man Who Fell to Earth‘s Thomas Newton reimagined as a rogue visionary with a plan to destroy the world by suffocating it with raw, incriminating documentation.
Such determination is on display almost immediately, when Assange meets Daniel Domscheit-Berg at a European hacker convention in 2007. Daniel is swept away by Julian’s sense of purpose and free-flowing quotes from Oscar Wilde and Russian anti-totalitarian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Before long, Assange and his new freedom soldier, using technology that keeps whistleblower submissions untraceable, expose major tax improprieties by Swiss banker Julius Baer and post the membership list of Britain’s far-right National Party.
It might be an unfortunate byproduct of his time in the Twilight zone, but Bill Condon over-relies on CGI instead of trusting his characters to propel the story and maintain our interest. Vast rows of unmanned computer desks represent Assange’s anonymous army of truth seekers (which, of course, never existed; Assange did everything) and typed words are projected onto the faces of the actors as their fingers fly over their keyboards. These whiz-bang tricks, combined with a noisy Carter Burwell score and Virginia Katz’s tripwire editing, ostensibly serve to convey momentous events unfolding at DSL-speeds, but really only distract from The Fifth Estate‘s underwhelming take on the juicy subject Condon and Singer have been handed.
‘The Fifth Estate’ vs. ‘The Social Network’
The latter makes his big screen debut here, and because he’s a veteran of Aaron Sorkin’s TV show The West Wing, we’re forced to compare his efforts with Sorkin’s Oscar-winning screenplay for another film about the creation of an internet phenomenon, The Social Network. In that script, Sorkin never let the stakes within the story or the pressure of chronicling the birth of Facebook distract him from the crafting of full-bodied characters. Singer is not so focused, giving us a rather routine reading of the increasingly sour relationship between Domscheit-Berg and Assange. It’s surprising Condon would let that go, since early in his career he wrote (and directed) two thoughtful and marvelous character studies (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters).
Granted, Singer does show Sorkin-esque dexterity in navigating the various story threads in this overstuffed tale. He effectively sketches the collateral damage caused when WikiLeaks starts embarrassing the US government, putting our foreign moles at risk and forcing traditional media to reconcile their responsibility to report the news with their responsibility to avoid the indiscriminate release of secret documents.
WikiLeaks movie ‘The Fifth Estate’: Bradley Manning episode is highlight
The Fifth Estate begins and eventually circles back to the Bradley Manning episode, in which the now-incarcerated Army private handed almost 450,000 U.S. military documents to WikiLeaks. This section is, by a far sight, the best part of the film. It slows down to consider the stakes and let interpersonal conflicts simmer and boil. Here, Daniel’s growing sense of apostasy towards the imperious Assange mixes with traditional media (represented by David Thewlis, as The Guardian reporter Nick Davies) deciding whether to cross the Rubicon and get into bed with someone so arrogantly deficient in journalistic ethics.
Out of self-preservation, the old-school Guardian partnered with the internet provocateur and got what it deserved. Namely, it got screwed when Assange reneged on his agreement to release the Manning documents redacted. Assange, as the movie concludes via on-screen text, got what he deserved, too. Any one man holding the world hostage to whatever secret documents he chooses to release needs a serious time-out. As of this writing, Assange is holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy, where he’s been living while fighting extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges.
WikiLeaks: ‘To trust the site is to trust Julian Assange’
While Bill Condon skips the anti-Assange smear campaign reportedly orchestrated by endangered members of the traditional media beginning in 2010, he does crystallize an agonizing concern about WikiLeaks: to trust the site is to trust Julian Assange and, as this movie gently concludes, there’s too much ego, unpredictability and self-righteous regard for us to fully invest our faith in his decisions. It contaminates much of his work, which is a shame because whistleblowing is a legitimate means of keeping the powerful in check.
In fact, it would be unfair to ignore the WikiLeaks releases that have done a great service to the dying concept of government transparency, including the 2010 “Collateral Murder” video of two Reuters reporters killed by U.S. machine gun fire in Iraq (a key moment in The Fifth Estate). The problem is that Assange is reckless, arrogant and creepy, which risks giving whistleblowing a bad name. And if the messenger is a turn-off, people will grant themselves the option of ignoring the message. Indeed, the only true take-away from the frantic, two-dimensional The Fifth Estate is that Julian Assange isn’t championing moral justice as much as brand building and the inconvenience of accountability in the internet age.
The Fifth Estate (2013). Dir.: Bill Condon. Scr.: Josh Singer; based on Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s book Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website, and David Leigh and Luke Harding’s book WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy. Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Laura Linney, Carice van Houten, Anthony Mackie, Stanley Tucci, Dan Stevens, Peter Capaldi, Alicia Vikander, David Thewlis, Moritz Bleibtreu, Jamie Blackley, Hera Hilmar, Michael Jibson, Alexander Beyer, Michael Culkin.
Photo of Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange in the WikiLeaks movie The Fifth Estate: DreamWorks / Walt Disney Studios.
Image of Daniel Brühl as Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate: DreamWorks / Walt Disney Studios.