Going into The Fifth Estate, I anticipated the Julian Assange version of the recent Jobs, which was a nice-looking but mostly soulless regurgitation of the high points from the Apple founder’s life. But as it turns out, The Fifth Estate actually has something to say. It’s not a terribly original thesis – especially if you saw the recent (and excellent) documentary Wikileaks: We Steal Secrets. But it’s a genuinely complex one, and has the added bonus of being correct on the merits, at least in my opinion.
Director Bill Condon and writer Josh Singer smartly make Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) – a German hacker who fell in with Wikileaks – their main character. That allows them to introduce Wikileaks’ operation step by step, as Assange recruits Domscheit-Berg at a computer conference. Then the pair build their technical infrastructure and recruit new players, and finally move on to bust the Swiss Bank Julius Baer. That leads to bigger and bigger fish, eventually culminating with Wikileaks’ partnership with the Guardian’s Nick Davies (David Thewlis) to release the cables and documents from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
The structure also allows The Fifth Estate to recreate the experience many of us had in the real world when we first heard of Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch). First he’s a mysterious and quixotic figure that comes out of no where, then he seems increasingly heroic, and then finally the underlying dysfunction becomes more and more apparent.
The film’s been criticized for a lack of interesting action or drama – which is understandable, given it’s all about a bunch of people sitting around computers. The filmmakers try to shoehorn in the murder of two African human rights activists to build tension, but it only sort of works. Still, I found the film compelling because, again, Condon and Singer smartly build most of their interest using Domscheit-Berg’s personal revelations to pull back the layers on Assange. First, there’s the discovery Assange is lying about his volunteer network (he doesn’t have one), then the truly rudimentary nature of his infrastructure and security, his ideologically obstinate refusal to redact sensitive names from the document dumps, and finally his dictatorial behavior and manipulative secret keeping. The movie claims he didn’t tell any of his colleagues about the extent of the intelligence dump he got from Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning, and makes much of the psychological factoid that Assange dyes his hair (a claim Assange disputes, for what it’s worth).
The screenplay is based heavily on the book Domscheit-Berg wrote after his falling out with Assange, so things must be taken with a grain of salt. But as pure storytelling, the movie largely works. Condon is an able visual craftsman, and the camera placement, editing, and music all flow together in a controlled but energetic fashion. A few of Condon’s visual tricks are a bit Hackers-esque. But his central visual conceit – Wikileaks as an endless sea of computer desks under a blank sky, in which the characters interact – works well and adds a layer of metaphorical color to the proceedings.
To its credit, The Fifth Estate accepts that Assange’s creation genuinely did the country and the world a service, and that Assange was manipulative, troubled, and deeply morally obtuse. It’s then content to just contemplate the two points’ quixotic brotherhood. There’s an especially neat bit of thematic-moral jujitsu over the closing credits, where Cumberbatch as Assange actually berates “that Wikileaks movie” in a fictionalized interview, glories in his own neuroses, and then in the midst of it all delivers a final moral commission to the audience that The Fifth Estate clearly agrees with.
The problem is that despite its high craftsmanship, the film’s dedication to its this dual thesis runs it down multiple rabbit holes and tangents. There’s a whole subplot dedicated to a U.S. foreign policy official (Laura Linney), her boss (Stanley Tucci), their contact at the White House (Anthony Mackie), and the asset in Libya (Alexander Siddig) they’re trying to protect, that feels thrust into they movie for no reason other than to make it explicitly clear to the audience that Wikileaks endangered real lives and put the U.S. State Department through real hell. It also descends into full on speechification at the end, via a monologue by David Thewlis, which is saved only by the fact that it’s David Thewlis, and he’s awesome.
Those points could’ve been made with far less effort or screen time. As it is, they distract from the film’s core: the psychological phantasmagoria Assange constructs on top of a genuinely laudable cause, how he pulls Berg into it, and how Berg ultimately rebels. That distraction leaves Assange as more of a cipher than a fleshed out character, despite Cumberbatch’s excellent performance and astonishing behavioral mimicry.
So while it’s a flawed film, I’m tempted to just give The Fifth Estate a straightforward endorsement. But I suspect that’s because I went into it with exceedingly low expectations.