Director: Bill Condon
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Alicia Vikander, Moritz Bleibtreu, David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie, Stanley Tucci
Julian Assange is one of the most divisive figures in international politics in the last decade. To some he is a hero, a champion for democracy and free speech. To others he is a self-important egomaniac with little respect for the consequences of his actions. Earlier this year the story of Assange and WikiLeaks was explored on screen in Alex Gibney’s compelling documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, and now they’re back in cinemas, this time as a thriller in Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate.
Condon, fresh off the last two instalments of The Twilight Saga, brings us the story through the eyes of Assange’s one-time partner Daniel Berg, starting from the moment when WikiLeaks burst on to the international scene by exposing the illegal activities of Swiss bank Julius Baer and continuing through to the 2010 leak of the ‘Iraq War Logs’ and a quarter of a million US diplomatic cables, and the subsequent arrest of Bradley Manning.
Adapted from Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s book Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website, The Fifth Estate presents a rather damning account of Assange’s personality and actions – which is interesting given the film’s trailers were cut together in such a way that they appeared quite pro-Assange. The screenplay was written by Josh Singer, once a writer on The West Wing, though he hasn’t managed to bring the Sorkin-esque sharpness of dialogue that made that show so brilliant to this project.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Assange, an egotistical control freak who possesses little in the way of social skills, is an elusive character. We are given very little insight into what, outside of ego, makes him tick. We are presented with snippets of his troubled childhood as though that explains everything, but the links between the past and the present are not always apparent. Yet despite the aggressiveness of this portrayal, it is hard to see how The Fifth Estate will change anyone’s mind about Assange or the events that occurred. His detractors will agree with the negative aspects of the representation, while his supporters will shout character assassination. Lacking in any real revelations, the film leaves you none the wiser on the whole issue.
As Berg, Daniel Brühl provides the human centre of the film. It is his journey, rather than Assange’s, that we go on. Berg is initially swept up in the excitement of Assange’s crusade. Over time he starts to doubt his decision making and his priorities, until finally he comes to doubt his motivations. Berg is the film’s conscience and the progression of his relationship to Assange and the idea that he represents seems to be reflective of many people’s response.
Stylistically, The Fifth Estate is a bit overbearing. Condon employs a number of different methods to visually represent the cyberspace in which WikiLeaks exists, and the online communication between its members, and before long you are feeling bombarded by flashing and flying text.
Given that every day our newspapers are still filled with stories relating to Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and the revelations that the US has been tapping the phones of the leaders of allied nations, there is no doubt that The Fifth Estate is a timely film. However, despite this timeliness, it is neither revelatory enough nor well executed enough to establish itself as an important film.
Rating – ★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean