Looking at the weekend box office reports, it’s genuinely surprising that “The Fifth Estate,” the Bill Condon-directed Julian Assange biopic, has completely bombed. Not only did they manage to rush this story to the big screen a mere three years after Julian Assange’s name came to the forefront of the media’s attention, but they were even lucky enough to have it come out in the wake of the Edward Snowden scandal and the Chelsea Manning sentencing.
Indeed, freedom of information and the power of the whistleblower are on the tip of everyone’s tongues. Plus, it stars Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s jumped into the role of one of the most talked-about names in Hollywood (and with a name like that, why wouldn’t you say it out loud?). So, the question remains: in this pre-Oscar season, how did they manage to take something with so much potential and screw the pooch so badly? The simple answer is that, really, “The Fifth Estate” isn’t much of a movie. But that doesn’t mean that it’s irredeemable.
The film opens in 2010, with Bradley Manning’s files being released by The Guardian, thereby unleashing the full anger of the world’s intelligence networks. As the authorities come for computer programmers Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) and Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Berg flashes back to his first meeting with Assange. We then cut back to 2007, the film recounting how the two first meet and their co-founding of the revealing WikiLeaks. From there, the film follows the process of the site gaining momentum and notoriety, moving from revealing illegal Cayman Islands reports and Sarah Palin’s Yahoo account, to eventually revealing the infamous Bradley Manning files. As the website gains momentum, it becomes fraught with peril, not only from legal pressure, but also from Assange’s growing instability and paranoia.
The heart of the movie’s problem lies with the protagonist, as the film essentially uses one of the least interesting characters as a focus for the rest of the story. For a greater portion of the movie, Brühl’s character isn’t given much to do other than watch what the enigmatic Assange is up to. It’s only once he starts to raise some ethical concerns over the potential collateral damage of the information they’re releasing that he really has any reason to be such a critical character.
As such, the movie makes some weird attempts to give him a little more action, such as placing an unnecessary focus on his relationship with his disapproving girlfriend, Anke. The strange thing about her character is that she only really comes into play when the movie wants someone to question Berg’s willingness to follow Assange; then she’s just swept under the rug for the rest of the movie. What’s even stranger is that, according to allegations posted on WikiLeaks, her only substantial scene wherein Assange has a disrespectful confrontation with her might not have even happened. But we’ll get to that later.
Ultimately, this is Cumberbatch’s show, and he certainly doesn’t disappoint. His performance is actually a little scary, as he portrays Assange as an obsessive megalomaniac with little-to-no social skills. It’s amazing to watch how he can flaunt so much self-assured, revolutionary bravado when things go his way, only to revert to an irrational, slimy alien whenever his plans fail. There are some moments in the film where the writing starts to turn Assange into a cartoonish villain, but because Cumberbatch holds such a startling attention to detail with all his character’s quirks, it’s much easier to believe the fascinating downward spiral.
So far, this film has gathered a considerable amount of controversy, namely from Julian Assange himself, who claims the film is an inaccurate attack on his character. He went so far as to publish the movie’s script in September. Now, I’ll confess to not knowing nearly enough about Assange or WikiLeaks to speak for the film’s accuracy one way or another (granted, reading the list of complaints filed in a WikiLeaks post, it’s not too hard to believe that the film’s writers might have taken more than their fair share of liberties with the story).
I will advise, however, not to be fooled by some of the downright conspiratorial allegations being flung at this movie. On the one hand, yes, it certainly doesn’t paint Assange in a favourable light. It puts forward a debate of whether or not his ends justified his means, emphasizing the U.S. lives he put in danger with some of the leaked cables (which, once again, might have been overstated). However, any fairness in this debate is largely sunk by their choice of portraying Assange as borderline insane.
At the same time, however, the movie is completely willing to laud WikiLeaks, choosing to end the film with a monologue essentially crowning the site as the greatest revolution in journalism in centuries. The film tries so hard to build up the momentous importance of the site that it even resorts to some reasonably gimmicky animated segments showing the leaking cables spreading across the globe. With its title “The Fifth Estate,” the movie intends to come off as endearing towards WikiLeaks, and it does succeed in making this point, even if it tries just a little too hard at times.
It’s really tough to decide the lens through which one should view “The Fifth Estate.” As a thriller, it certainly builds up a sense of momentum and manages to make its two-hour running time fly by, but it also drops the ball far too often whenever it tries to deal with its characters. As a biopic, it paints an interesting picture, but it’s just too fuzzy with the degree of accuracy it tries to maintain.
Ultimately, if you have two hours to kill and don’t mind sitting in an empty theater, then this film won’t be a waste of your time or money. It’ll keep you entertained and bring up some interesting questions about the modern role of the press and freedom of information. It’s only after you leave the theater and really think about it that its glaring holes start to rise to the surface.