It is difficult not to bring to The Fifth Estate preformed opinions about the Julian Assange story. His is a compelling narrative: the man who made it his mission to bring truth to the world plagued by secrets of his own. As a public figure, Assange has garnered both devotion and notoriety. His supporters see a messiah of the new age of technological transparency, his detractors an egotistical eccentric, ruined by allegations of sexual misconduct. And it seems that Bill Condon’s picture is equally ambivalent about its elusive lead. Whilst it asks some of the right questions, it falls short of delivering any answers, and the half-truths it points at slip back into speculation before they can be fully realized.
This apprehension might be linked to the film’s source material. Josh Singer’s screenplay is based largely on two books: one by former WikiLeaks member Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the other by British investigative journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding. Neither gives a sympathetic account of its subject. Assange has been famously vitriolic in his attacks on the narrative premise of The Fifth Estate. He claims that the whole enterprise is a propaganda attack on his corporation and personal image. Certainly, he doesn’t fare particularly well on an individual level. Benedict Cumberbatch gives an outstanding performance as the WikiLeaks founder, but the persona he crafts is far from flattering. This Assange is a twitchy, sweaty oddball, given to forming both intense attachments and chilling vendettas.
There are some lovely details to Cumberbatch’s acting: the constant touching of his face and hair and his nervy, fidgeting posture gesture towards his character’s obvious social difficulties. He is at home behind a screen, but the rise of WikiLeaks throws him into an uncomfortable spotlight. He is repeatedly shown licking his fingers after sampling other people’s food: a finger in every pie. Indeed, this Assange is covered in the sticky residue of other people’s secrets, and The Fifth Estate is at its strongest when it focuses on the tight network of relationships that make up these faceless conglomerations.
The relationship at its core is that between Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg, played with considered restraint by the German actor Daniel Brühl. Berg is the level-headed wingman who attempts to temper his colleague’s radicalism. Assange has created WikiLeaks to fulfill his proclaimed mission of generating complete transparency. However, as the leaks begin to flood in—from soldiers in Afghanistan, government officials in Kenya, bank employees in Europe—the repercussions of Assange’s “no editing” policy become more difficult to control. As Berg begins to realize the potential human cost of their actions, Assange becomes increasingly erratic and unyielding.
This is also where some of the film’s flaws become more problematic. It suffers from its undiscriminating approach: the plot flies from leak to leak without pausing to focus on any particular event. Condon is blessed with a fantastic supporting cast, including Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci, but some of these actors, particularly Peter Capaldi as the Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, are underused. The Fifth Estate becomes too caught up in its fast-paced action, and whilst it is undoubtedly energetic, it fails to quite penetrate the masks it sets up. The question of who owns knowledge in a world where information is so rapidly and intangibly shared is at this film’s heart, but it seems unsure of its position, retreating behind the very smokescreens it seeks to dispel.
Director: Bill Condon
Writer: Josh Singer
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Laura Linney, David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi, Stanley Tucci, Alicia Vikander, Carice van Houten, Dan Stevens, Anthony Mackie.
Release Date: Oct. 18, 2013