Benedict Cumberbatch stars in this controversial new film centred on WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange.
Directed by Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn parts one and two) The Fifth Estate charts the rise and fall of the whistle-blowing website from its first successes to the biggest leak of classified information in U.S. history.
Based on the books Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange (by Daniel Domschiet-Berg) and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War On Secrecy (by David Leigh and Luke Harding), The Fifth Estate adopts the perspective of volunteer / WikiLeaks colleague Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl). Daniel’s evolving perception of Assange, who develops from determined oddball role-model to determined oddball adversary, drives the film forward amid developing leaks and increasing notoriety.
Despite an astounding performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, who completely inhabits the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of Julian Assange, The Fifth Estate feels much too speculative. Flashbacks provide a mere glimpse into Assange’s childhood - supposedly spent within the psychological confines of a cult - while the alleged sexual assaults that saw Assange take refuge at the Ecudorian Embassy in London are given just a parting mention. Cordon’s film seems afraid to confront these issues head on, embracing ambiguity over richly textured drama.
Yet the script from West Wing series writer, Josh Singer, works hard to bring to light the film’s themes of bias, perception and truth - threads that are emphasised by The Fifth Estate’s one-sided perspective. Assange’s fierce refusal to redact leaked documents lies at the heart of the film’s climax and it is here where Assange is most blatantly cast as the bad-guy, as Singer’s script pits Daniel’s desire for the anonymity of US informants against Assange’s apparently reckless desire for the whole truth.
Although Singer’s script places Assange at the centre of The Fifth Estate, the motives behind Assange’s often erratic behaviour remain curiously at a distance from us. That Cumberbatch’s Assange is reserved, guarded, even detached, only adds to The Fifth Estate’s intrigue and Condon never quite answers our questions. Just when you think you have the complex Assange within your grasp, he slips away in a tangle of ego, self-preservation and facade.
That Assange, who so ardently sought full, unadulterated truth, should now be mired in the ambiguity of a fictionalised account is, in itself, an interesting notion and Condon plays on this with the inclusion of a fictionalised interview in which Assange is asked his opinion of the WikiLeaks movie. Blended with factual statements displayed, matter of fact, on screen, this clever scene further blurs the lines between reality and fiction, making The Fifth Estate a provocative picture that stays with you after the credits roll.
Yet The Fifth Estate lacks the dramatic glue to hold its themes together in thrilling fashion. Condon’s feature misses the energy of Aaron Sorkin’s dynamic Social Network and relies on spurious visual metaphors to liven up tedious techie scenes. Online chat is relocated to vast allegorical offices and reams of text rapidly fly about the screen. This surreal, visual frivolity feels at odds with the drama and frequently distracts from the power of The Fifth Estate’s very capable cast. Add to this a trio of heavily stereotyped newspaper journalists and The Fifth Estate begins to unravel.
The Fifth Estate’s peculiar blend of fact and fiction makes for a thought-provoking film that questions the place of WikiLeaks in modern journalism and draws attention to the myriad of perceptions and biases at work in society, including its own. That Assange’s character remains slippery and elusive adds to the intrigue but The Fifth Estate’s reluctance to sink its teeth into the meatier aspects of this story leave this controversial film feeling less substantial than it should.
Running Time: 128 minutes