The Fifth Estate
How do you change the world? Breathlessly, if "The Fifth Estate" is to be believed.
Bill Condon's film follows the rise of WikiLeaks and the fall of its founder Julian Assange with the high drama and velocity of a Bourne movie. With tense situations, rapid cutting and a phalanx of sleek screen graphics, Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer propel this absorbing story forward with everything in deep focus save for one thing: Its subject. Is Assange a savior for his absolute dedication to the notion of transparency of ideas, or a self-aggrandizing zealot with no ethics? By the end of the film, he's still a cipher.
Much of this has to do with the chameleon-like performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange. With his long blond hair and deadly pale skin, Cumberbatch looks like he walked out of a "Twilight" movie (which was a series wrapped up by Condon in the past two years). There's something almost unearthly about him, which Cumberbatch plays to his advantage. His character is elusive, mercurial, rootless -- able to be in Kenya one minute working on human rights issues and Berlin the next, putting in motion the taking down of a German Bank hiding assets for its uber-wealthy clients. And Cumberbatch plays him as a cyber-swashbuckler, throwing snippets of his past out as if they are tantalizing pieces of an elaborate mosaic. Just how did his hair turn white? (The answer may surprise you.) And where did this compulsion to use technology to bring down (or at least badger) institutions and government come from?
It remains a mystery. Early on, though, the architecture of WikiLeaks is explained with a potent graphic metaphor -- the leaker as seen as hiding in the company of millions. Throughout the film, Condon conveys vital information in visual terms that are easy to digest that would likely stymie lesser filmmakers. With this sequence, he suggests that Assange created safety in numbers. "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person," says Assange quoting Oscar Wilde. "Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."
Assange gives them that mask, but what of the truth that’s told? That is the question at the center of this compelling, contemporary morality tale that breathlessly recounts how WikiLeaks became both a darling to the media, which craved its leaks to insure their own survival in the digital news age, and a pariah to government and institutions embarrassed and, it turns out, seemingly endangered by the scope and specificity of the leaks. (Remember Chelsea Manning? She figures heavily in the film’s climatic sequence.)
It’s a big story with many working parts that are sometimes awkwardly cobbled together in Singer’s screenplay, which is based on two books (Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s "Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website," and David Leigh and Luke Harding’s "WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy") that offer a less than flattering portrait of Assange -- not quite character assassination, but go to some length to tarnish his image as an idealistic whistleblower.
In the final moments, Assange, in exile in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, dismisses the film (which he knows is being filmed) as lacking any truth. It is a curious moment, one that brings attention to both the accuracy of what came before it and it subject’s hubris. The film tries to have it both ways by lauding Assange’s technology and vision of finding a way of disseminating vital information without harming sources, while damning the man who created it for being a self-aggrandizing charlatan that lies to everyone to get ahead.
It’s also a familiar story of personal betrayal told with less noise and more heat in "The Social Network." Assange is seen through the eyes of Daniel Berg (the excellent Daniel Brühl), a Berlin-based computer geek that becomes fascinated with WikiLeaks and seeks out its creator to work with him. Dazzled by Assange’s mix of hubris and idealism, the pair creates a covert web network across Europe to dispense information that makes WikiLeaks a brand name for whistle blowers. It isn’t long before governments and institutions push back, and Assange’s behavior is being discussed by high-ranking State Department officials (Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci in droll caricatures) as a thorn in the side of the intelligence community. But how can they bring him down?
Much of the final act of the film follows the thorny break-up between Assange and Berg, which plays out as the Chelsea Manning case becomes known. Berg sides on redacting vital information that could put operatives (and others) in danger of losing their lives; Assange is more interested in transparency at any cost. Much of this is shown in heated discussions between Assange and Berg that turn a complex drama into a binary morality tale, which end the movie on a simplistic note. Also, the choice to offer an explanation of the film’s title -- that the Internet makes up the Fifth Estate -- seems a bit presumptive. Perhaps it is correct that the web is the next great-institutionalized social order, but for a Hollywood film to define it just feels pretentious.
This is a shame because up to that point Condon has made an effective and timely thriller. His keen visual sense goes to great lengths in keeping the complicated story in focus. He also allows his actors to get under the skin of their characters, most specifically Cumberbatch who brings a curious charisma to Assange: It’s hard to pin down why he proves so fascinating. That we see him largely through Berg’s eyes may be why his character is so ambivalent. Daniel Brühl (so good in "Rush") conveys Berg’s inner conflicts with sincerity; that he ends up being the film’s hero may only be because it is his story the filmmakers chose to adapt. Perhaps another film will paint a different picture.
Nonetheless, there’s plenty to enjoy and ponder here, not the least of it are the ethical questions at its center played with the relentless energy of a Bond film. You half-expect Daniel Craig to have a cameo.