Here’s the scoop. The new film, The Fifth Estate, about WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange does not make the thorny issues around Assange and WikiLeaks any less complicated. Unlike The Social Network, to which it will inevitably be compared, The Fifth Estate does not zip along on snappy emotional beats and clever dialogue. It is messy, sometimes too confusing, sometimes too obvious. Yes, it’s complicated, but worth giving a chance for a couple of fine performances and the scope of its ambitions.
Director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey, Dreamgirls) and screenwriter Josh Singer (The West Wing) have drawn from two books – one by Assange’s one-time WikiLeaks lieutenant Daniel Domscheit-Berg; the other from Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding, to create an updated version of a seventies conspiracy thriller. Visually, it’s busy and fizzy, full of slash edits and double screens accompanied by Berlin electronic music, in an overreaching attempt to lend excitement to the world of guys sitting for many hours looking at computer screens.
Some of the visuals are fun, but nowhere near as electric as the performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, best known for his performance on the British TV series Sherlock. He plays Assange, the white-haired Australian hacking genius, as a pouty narcissist with a vampire’s pallor, a missionary idealism and a gift for speaking in slogans: “Courage is contagious,” he says, and “privacy for the individual, transparency for institutions.” Cumberbatch’s impersonation of Assange is both accurate and slyly comic; you can’t help thinking the WikiLeaks founder would make a great Holmes villain, if the actor ever wanted to star against himself.
The second best is the performance of Daniel Bruhl (Niki Lauda in Rush), as Domscheit-Berg, Assange’s lieutenant at WikiLeaks, an eager disciple hiding behind glasses and a beard, who clears his bank account and drops his girlfriend to join the revolution/cult, before, inevitably, he becomes disillusioned with what he considers his mentor’s arrogant recklessness.
An early discovery is that WikiLeaks isn’t exactly a powerful organization with with an army of volunteers as it’s advertised. Instead, it’s mostly just him and Assange, working under a host of pseudonyms. In one shot, Assange is seen working on his computer, and when the camera pulls back, an entire imaginary newsroom of similar desks are occupied by rows of smirking Assanges. Text messages appear directly on the screen when the characters interact, documents fly through the air, as the hackers communicate. This is Condon’s visualization of Assange’s “submission platform,” an encrypting system that allowed anonymous whistleblowers to leak top-secret financial and military secrets.
With this technology, WikiLeaks has the fulcrum and lever to tilt the world and shake out its secrets: Money laundering at a Swiss bank, political death squads in Kenya, Nazi supporters in England, a nuclear accident in Iran, and American helicopter pilots killing Reuters journalists in Iraq. All this leads up to, eventually, the biggest leak of classified materials in history in 2010, when U.S. soldier Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley Manning), provided WikiLeaks with hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iran army logs, and a quarter million U.S. embassy cables.
Publicizing them was a task worthy of Hercules cleaning out the Augean stables; Assange has to enlist the help of the traditional journalists of The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel to help man the shovels. Those old-school “fourth estate,” if somewhat clichéd journos (rumpled, grumpy, given to pontification) suggest some of the philosophical issues at the heart of The Fifth Estate. David Thewlis plays the real-life investigative reporter Nick Davies who believes in this new kind of investigative reporting, or at least, its potential.
The movie highlights a critical issue about the difference between vast amounts of raw digital information and the narrative structure, and arbitrarily limited space of print newspapers. Domscheit-Berg quotes The Guardian’s claim that WikiLeaks broke more scoops in three years than The Washington Post had in 30, though the entire film itself suffers from this kind of information overload. How much dirty laundry can you air before you begin suffocating in it?
In the movie’s version of things, Assange’s ethics don’t keep up with his need to expose: He decides to dump the U.S. diplomatic cables, unredacted, regardless of what diplomatic sources or other lives may be put at risk. Though the U.S. government’s argument that Assange had “blood on his hands” never proved accurate, it does lead to the movie’s weakest subplot, focusing on the fictionalized American reaction. These scenes feature Laura Linney as a Middle East attaché, Stanley Tucci as her boss, with Anthony Mackie as a national security consultant, doing a lot of hand-wringing, but serving little purpose beyond making the film less Eurocentric.
Much more interesting is the progression of events as Assange emotionally seduces and manipulates Domscheit-Berg, scenes where Cumberbatch is allowed to demonstrate his intelligent, twitchy, acting mastery. In the movie’s best scene, Assange visits Domscheit-Berg’s utterly bourgeois, privileged and generally admirable parents, and can barely contain his anxiety and contempt at such a normal, happy existence. In a clever coda, the fictional Assange, talking to an unseen interviewer, recommends we dismiss the movie entirely and think for ourselves.
This is likely the only part of The Fifth Estate with which Assange is likely to agree.