In the not too distant future, it’s possible audiences will react to cinematic depictions of 20th century journalism the way we do now when seeing characters smoke in a restaurant, as double-take-inducing behavioural relics from an older time period. It’s what makes Citizen Kane an impossible film to modernize, structurally speaking. Hopping on planes, beating the pavement, and finding out who a person was by talking with those who knew them personally? How positively quaint, says The Fifth Estate, the new Wikileaks drama. While you’re still packing to visit the subject’s nearest and dearest, I’ve already gained access to their career history, interests, hopes, dreams, and political leanings in minutes – all it cost me was a friend request and a follow.
Anyone with a keyboard now has a soapbox from which to stand in front of the whole world, but that’s only made it more difficult for those with something important to say to be heard amidst the growing interference. It’s for that reason that Wikileaks rose to prominence in the back half of the last decade, providing a worldwide platform from which whistleblowers could be heard, while maintaining their anonymity. Based on a pair of tell-alls chronicling the rise of the notorious website, and its equally infamous creator, The Fifth Estate presents a world in which the information age has quickly given way to the age of information overload. Among the film’s niftiest sequences is a visual representation of how the website conceals sensitive information, shrouding it behind nonsense phrases and blather so as to be indistinguishable from text message and Twitter white noise.
When a medium of information delivery is placed in everyone’s hands, the message becomes all that matters. The challenge becomes getting that message out to a globally connected public, where the sheer volume of competing opinions and stories creates a cacophony of information that can be impossible to decipher. “How can someone talk for 15 minutes without saying anything?” the film’s lead asks at one point. Extend that timer by about an hour and forty-five, and the same could be said about The Fifth Estate. Somewhat ironically, it’s that inability to translate all its historical static into something worth saying that turns out to be the film’s saving grace.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Julian Assange, the white haired black hat hacker responsible for founding Wikileaks in 2006. The film opens with Assange holding a press conference on the 2010 Cablegate scandal, controlling the biggest accidental intelligence leak in history with a fan in one hand, and a can of gasoline in the other. Cumberbatch is well within his comfort zone in the role, having built an entire career on performances that cast him as a brilliant misanthrope that knows they’re the smartest man in the room. When that room constitutes the entire web-connected world, egos tend to balloon accordingly. The film then cuts back to the foundation of Wikileaks proper, which in the film’s opinion, didn’t begin until 2007, when Assange found his first disciple, Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl).
With the introduction implying future estrangement for the pair, it doesn’t take much time to guess that The Fifth Estate is following a Great Man’s Fall playbook established by the likes of Kane and The Social Network. What is surprising is how willingly it plays into the clichés of those stories, with every major plot beat coming in overcooked but right on schedule. The film makes it hard to describe the pair’s journey from upstart to infamy in an original fashion, with characters constantly branding the two as rock stars, heroes, martyrs, terrorists and all manner of other buzz-worthy labels you’d expect for public enemies number one and two.
Even if the leads weren’t so naturally handsome, The Fifth Estate would have no problem selling its portrayal of idealism as the new sexy, with laptop cover stickers replacing guitar case decals as the badges of honor among men fighting the good fight against tyranny. If Assange is the film’s bad boy lead singer, Berg is its brooding hunk of a guitarist, the heart of the operation keeping Assange on time and in line. As the Jedediah/Eduardo to Cumberbatch’s Kane/Zuckerberg, Brühl rises above the limitations of the material. From page one, the script faces an enormous challenge in condensing all the information surrounding Wikileaks and Assange into a balanced and concise two-hour film. Its solution: don’t even bother trying.
By director Bill Condon’s own admission, the true impact of what Assange and the site accomplished won’t be known for decades, so instead of trying to crystalize the security vs. privacy debate through the story of one man, a much simpler goal is attempted. The Fifth Estate just wants to be entertaining, and for this reason, the film is mostly a success. It’s music video agitprop, and it knows it. Using a flashy montage to introduce Assange as a successor to the likes of F.D.R., and Martin Luther is absurd, but so are many of the film’s other dramatic quirks that are overstyled enough to (hopefully) keep any viewer from accepting this version of events as gospel.
When viewed as a techno-thriller popcorn flick, The Fifth Estate has a much lower bar to clear, though one cleared far better by The Social Network, despite there being real lives in danger instead of just social ones. Where the one film had Trent Reznor, Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher goosing the facts, The Fifth Estate has electronic power ballads, and the director of two of the better Twilight films. Creativity of vision can often compensate for shallow material, but the film its attempts to dramatize history are all pretty by the numbers. When deciding whether to focus on its protagonist or his politics, The Fifth Estate more often than not sticks to the former, picking up low-hanging fruit like a running gag about his hair. The real Assange has denounced the film, and it’s hard to blame him: it often ignores the mission in favor of psychoanalyzing the man leading it, coming up with an obnoxiously facile explanation for his behavior that might as well conclude with Assange typing >Rosebud.exe into a laptop.
The good and harm that total government transparency creates is paid lip service from all sides (including an almost entirely disconnected subplot sporting heavy-hitters Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, and Anthony Mackie), causing everything to more or less balance out by the end due to sheer confusion. Yet The Fifth Estate is smarter than it seems, in that it is willing to acknowledge the flimsiness of its own premise. Not having the guts to say anything definitive might seem cowardly or lazy, but the notion that a glamourously produced made-for-TV-but-in-theaters biopic could realistically inspire an awakening of social consciousness on the greatest civil rights debate of our time is ridiculous.
The Fifth Estate is not a film trying to rouse action out of an audience that barely has the urge to tweet to power, let alone speak to it. References to Assange as a Che-like revolutionary are more ironic than earnest, and Cumberbatch’s performance does little to engender false sympathy. Brilliantly, the film ends with Assange during an interview, blasting the announcement of the very film we’re seeing him portrayed in. “Editing implies bias,” is his repeated refrain throughout, and it’s because The Fifth Estate is so transparent in its own bias towards being entertainment that its ultimate value is in inspiring the viewer to filter out the BS, and seek out the real facts for themselves.
The Fifth Estate rarely offers great insight into Assange or the world that spawned Wikileaks, but its acceptance of that fact makes it easier to enjoy as well-acted entertainment that compels you to seek out the real story.