When The Social Network opened in theatres in October 2010, an Internet craze that had seemed so relevant for a few years was already beginning to fade. Then, there was a newer, more powerful online enterprise getting the attention of hundreds of millions of people around the world: WikiLeaks. Alas, Hollywood now delivers another piece of very current history with The Fifth Estate, which focuses on the relationship between Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberatch), the celebrity champion for freedom of information who launched the controversial site, and his hacker friend, ingenue Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl).
Any film that attempts to cover the rise of WikiLeaks, a dense organization filled with a provocative and ethically grey history, has a lot of information to get through without losing the viewer. A film about the company would also have to bring a rounded portrayal of the hyper-intelligent enigma that is Julian Assange. To that extent, The Fifth Estate is successful, even if it is far from perfect.
The film begins with three newspapers – the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel – releasing various documents that exposed classified U.S. secrets from the war in Afghanistan. Known as “The War Logs,” this information had been dumped on WikiLeaks in early 2010. The organization encouraged whistleblowers to submit secrets onto the site, where it could later become public information.
Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) uses this breakthrough as a mark to zoom back a few years to Berlin, where Domscheit-Berg meets Assange at a tech convention, sparking a friendship which leads to the young hacker joining Assange’s cause to expose secrets and topple regimes.
Assange is a cyberpunk, a controlling hacker who lives spontaneously. He is not rich, but puts all of his funds toward new projects, plane flights and setting up servers throughout Europe. He still works from an old laptop and borrows suit jackets from Domscheit-Berg when making a public appearance. One character refers to him as an octopus, with each of his legs dipped into a new pool of resources around the world.
Like The Social Network, Condon’s film has a celebrity cipher as its protagonist, and he is a hard nut to crack. Similar to how Fincher’s film was adapted from a book that did not interview Mark Zuckerberg, The Fifth Estate is based on two books, one which Domscheit-Berg wrote with a bias. As a result, it is only a second-hand source on one of this century’s most fascinating public figures. The script from Josh Singer, a West Wing writer, has a bit of difficulty framing Assange as well. He tries to use a childhood trauma as a motive for Assange’s truth crusade, but it is unconvincing.
Luckily, Benedict Cumberbatch does a stellar job of giving the audience a coherent character that doesn’t quite exist on the page. Not only does he nail the deep, purring voice and Australian accent, but he treats Assange as a paradox, a man driven to unleash transparency in the geopolitical realm, but obsessed with his own secrecy. Although the British actor looks too young for the part, few stars today radiate a look of intelligence and haughtiness quite like Cumberbatch, with a cold stare and sunken eyes.
As a film forced to pack the breadth of the organization into a stealthy two hours, The Fifth Estate stuffs a lot in, but is not overloaded. There is one notable omission: the film avoids going into depth on Bradley Manning, the whistleblower who hacked the NSA and spilled many secrets from the War on Terror onto the WikiLeaks server. There is also little on the first major news leak the site brought to light: Assange posted a now-infamous video of an American gunship firing on unarmed Iraqis and two journalists on YouTube, and tens of millions watched it before it became a national security nightmare for the U.S.
As a reiteration of history, The Fifth Estate is absorbing and dense for its first 90 minutes. The film only begins to falter in the final half-hour, when Singer’s script begins using characters as mouthpieces to debate over whether WikiLeaks is a noble entity for distributing information or whether the illegalities of spreading state secrets should imprison Assange.
Instead of leaving the audience to discuss this for themselves, there are a few clunky, didactic speeches about the rule of law. An overly cute interview scene with Assange at the end even asks the character (as played by Cumberbatch) his thoughts on the upcoming WikiLeaks movie. It’s a moment that feels too impressed with its own metatextual reference to work.
Overall, The Fifth Estate is flawed but often fascinating. Condon gets a lot of credit for pacing the film in a way that informs an audience without having to rely too much on dry exposition. Although it is not as all-encompassing as We Steal Secrets, Alex Gibney’s documentary on the organization that focused far more of its running time on Bradley Manning, that non-fiction film had a bigger hole: it didn’t have enough of a grip on Assange. Due to Cumberbatch’s alluring performance, The Fifth Estate rivets the audience to accept both sides of Assange, from his mission for truth and justice to his manipulative tactics and hazy ethical compass.
The Fifth Estate is a mostly successful attempt to jam four years of WikiLeaks' shady ethical dilemmas and shadier commander into a two-hour film.