It’s hard to argue that Julian Assange is one of the most powerful and polarizing figures of our current times. From childhood pranks hacking NASA and National Defense computer systems to exposing the dirty laundry of banks and governments around the world, he has become a hero to those seeking transparency and valuing privacy and a villain to those who believe security also means some secrets are worth keeping. But through it all, Assange has never doubted his convictions, and has boldly defended his actions, speaking broadly of revolution and accountability. And thus one might think a film about the man who continues to make headlines would be equally bold. You would be mistaken.
From the very first moments of “The Fifth Estate,” the Bill Condon-directed film feels antiquated and confused. An almost hilariously awful credit sequence kicks off the movie, attempting to track the rise of reporting with the printed word, from hieroglyphics hammered into stone (prompting one fellow colleague near us to quip, “Is this ‘National Treasure‘? “), through the invention of the printing press, to clips of TV news reports ranging from JFK’s assassination to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the chilling footage of the planes slamming into the World Trade Center on 9/11. And when that’s thankfully over, we’re dropped into Berlin in 2007, where an eager computer tech and hobbyist subversive named Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) crosses paths with an enterprising hacker named Julian (Benedict Cumberbatch).
And thus begins an episodic recap of the rise of the organization, starting with their leak of the shady dealings of Swiss bank Julius Baer, which finds them accumulating more classified documents, leading to more publications of sensitive data. Throughout all of this, which is almost like a Wikipedia history lesson, Condon leans far too heavily on montage whenever possible, never wasting a moment to cut to choppily and crudely edited scenes, backed by generic electro beats with printed text messages and IRC chats flying across the screen. Presumably this is to create a sense of in-the-moment urgency, but it feels like something ripped out of a ’90s movie about the Internet (or the latest Katy Perry video). And given that the film doesn’t spend much time on the repercussions of each spill of data, the only feeling of cumulative power gained by the nascent group comes from what we’re told out of the mouths of the characters, rather than any context provided on screen.
There is much thematic material to delve into when it comes WikiLeaks, but Condon, along with the script from Josh Singer, perhaps trying to come off as even-handed, winds up looking unfocused. The heart of “The Fifth Estate” is the relationship between Julian and Daniel, one that is tested as they ascend in notoriety. But while Daniel is largely painted as principled and committed, the filmmakers aren’t sure what they make of Assange. Asshole? Opportunist? Activist? Perhaps he’s all three, but Julian’s actions, which can range from wise prophet one moment to seething egotist the next, don’t feel rooted in an established character. The film wants to claim that he’s unknowable, but in doing so refuses to claim ownership for their depiction. Condon and co. try to have it both ways by keeping Assange as a man of international mystery, but also feebly attempt to explain his obsessiveness about trust and why he chooses his platinum hair color, on his brief spell as a child in a cult. But even this is so half-hearted that it fails be convincing.
All told, nearly three quarters of the film is spent trying to decode Assange without much to show for it, but it’s only in the final act that “The Fifth Estate” decides to engage and try to discuss the ethics, morals and consequences of WikiLeaks work—in particular around the release of the Afghanistan War Logs—in any substantive way, but again a lack of courage on behalf of the filmmakers to take any position renders the film narratively limp.
A trio of government officials played by Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie represent the government end of things, as they worry about agents in the field whose lives could be at risk thanks to the leak, and diplomatic ties that could be shattered thanks to various revelations within. Against this background, Assange battles for recognition of what he started, fights Daniel about responsibility for those who may come to harm versus revealing unedited truth, as well as negotiates with three newspapers about how to handle the hundreds of thousands of cables he has at his disposal. (And toss into this a subplot involving a government extraction of a longtime agent.) This entire chapter of the Assange and WikiLeaks story is absolutely crucial not only to his history, but to journalism in general, citizen reporting, whistleblowing and much more. It’s a movie unto itself, and needs far more time than what’s allotted here.
But the most crippling issue with “The Fifth Estate” is one that hobbles it right out of the gate—the film is based on two books, one of which is written by Daniel himself. And while the opening credits make no secret of this, and though the movie goes out of its way again in its closing moments to acknowledge this fact, one does wonder why in the closing title cards, updating the audience on where everyone is now, there is no mention that Daniel started his own site OpenLeaks. Given that much of this film is about the Julian’s supposed issue with sharing co-founder status with Daniel, it’s a curious omission to leave this fact out of the movie, especially considering how quickly he started it after splitting with Julian.
If there is any digital silver lining in this movie of numerous scenes of frenzied typing on laptops, endless visuals of html code and big location intertitles as Julian and Daniel traverse Europe, it’s the performances of Cumberbatch and Brühl (with the former nailing Assange’s distinct accent). They share a solid chemistry and play off each other well, delivering turns that certainly deserved better material than they were given. (And since you’ll ask, Alicia Vikander is ultimately wasted as Daniel’s understanding and/or hurt girlfriend, which usually depends on when the movie needs her to act that way.) But Singer’s script and Condon’s direction is what they got, and “The Fifth Estate” focuses on what is ultimately a petty personal feud, while mostly missing the revolution that’s still happening keystroke by keystroke on computer screens around the world. [C-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.