Telly Visions Goes to the Movies: ‘The Fifth Estate’

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange (Photo: DreamWorks)
Wikileaks drama The Fifth Estate has had plenty of buzz behind it ever since Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch was announced as director Bill Condon’s choice to play the infamous Julian Assange, founder of the controversial website, which was ostensibly meant to to hold governments accountable for their actions by providing the public with access to confidential intelligence documents. As many of you probably already know, the story of Wikileaks goes well beyond that – and the real Assange remains a polarizing figure today for a variety of reasons.

Much like public opinion on its subject matter, film goers are likely to be similarly divided on how they feel about The Fifth Estate as a movie. There’s much to recommend it, but don’t be surprised if it leaves you strangely cold.

At a recent screening for the film, instead of trailers touting other upcoming features, the audience was treated to a Fifth Estate bill board, asking whether we thought Assange a hero or a traitor and encouraging discussion on the subject. Yet, the film never really passes judgment on Assange, and leaves that for its audiences to mull over after the credits roll. This isn’t a bad thing – at all – the many issues raised by the actions of Wikileaks are certainly worthy of more discourse than a two-hour film can provide, but the drama seems to err so far on the side of not picking a side on the issue, that it occasionally forgets to find a coherent voice.

Cumberbatch plays Assange with the kind of uncanny accuracy that usually results in a boatload of awards nominations:  he’s a vaguely reptilian, swaggering genius with limited social skills, a huge ego, and a flexible moral code, who is simultaneously fascinating and subversive. The actor also clearly put in a lot of time watching video of Assange’s various appearances, as everything about his mannerisms and speech is so accurate that there are moments it borders on outright creepy. His performance conveys the ambiguous nature of Assange himself – he’s a crusading do-gooder test driving the information superhighway of the Internet to promote justice, and he’s a self-involved, arrogant narcissist that’s more interested in self-promotion than anything else. (He makes up stories about why his hair’s turned white to cover up the fact that he dyes it!) Cumberbatch’s performance is far and away the highlight of the film, and well worth recognition from some sort of awards body come next year.  There are huge chunks of this film you might not remember once the credits role, but Cumberbatch’s performance will stay with you for a while.

Daniel Bruhl’s turn as Assange’s right-hand man, Daniel Domscheit-Berg is also quite compelling, even though the character receives a slightly more sympathetic portrayal than his partner. This is largely because Berg serves as the audience’s window into the story – and into Assange – which positions the character in such a way that we automatically want to like and sympathize with him.  We watch Berg’s   admiration, support and ultimate disenchantment with Assange develop, and while he isn’t exactly presented as a hero, either, his motivations are not explored in a terribly in-depth way.

The Fifth Estate does do a great job of letting its audience draw its own conclusions about what sort of person Assange is and doesn’t push an agenda in one particular direction. We’re allowed – encouraged even – to make up our own minds about people like Assange and Berg, and how we feel about what they chose to do. Its presentation of the story behind Wikileaks is generally even-handed all around and will probably encourage a great many moviegoers to do more research into this story on their own. 

However, there’s often a problem trying to tell a story that’s still going on – after all, Assange is still living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning was just convicted a few weeks ago, and Wikileaks itself leaked the script of this movie to protest its existence, dismissing the film as propaganda. There’s no real “end”, here, because we’re not sure where (or what) this story ends, exactly, and as a society we’re still debating – often quite vehemently – the beliefs espoused by both supporters and detractors of Wikileaks and its goals. The story’s not over, so in some ways, the film was always going to feel a bit unfinished.

Therefore, it probably shouldn’t surprise most people that  The Fifth Estate does lose its way a bit as the film goes on. It is a bit over reliant on gimmicky digital imagery to convey complex ideas and quite frequently it seems to be completely content to feature a narrative with no clear point of view. While Condon’s dedication to presenting the story of Wikileaks – and Assange – as fairly as possibly is to be commended, this doesn’t always result in a great movie.  The plot drags in places, and so many details are crammed into the script that at times it feels like we’re just ticking the boxes of history, with events occurring because historically, that’s when they happened, rather than being driven by any actual in-story moments.

But, the things that are most compelling about The Fifth Estate – the things that audiences will leave the theater wanting to know more about – are the people involved in this story, and that’s in large part due to the outstanding performances from the film’s cast, even those with small, seemingly inconsequential roles. Familiar faces include Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens, Harry Potter’s David Thewlis, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, and Doctor Who’s new Twelve, Peter Capaldi, among others.  And they’re all top notch. Truly, the cast all does tremendous work carrying the film – even the most seemingly throw-away scenes have a sense of gravity and tension that will make you want to pay attention, even if you aren’t quite sure what’s happening story-wise. You’ll want to know who these players are, and how they relate to one another. (Though it seems prudent to note that Downton fans hoping to see more of Cousin Matthew are probably in for a bit of disappointment as Stevens has relatively limited screentime.)

Ostensibly, The Fifth Estate is supposed to be making us question how we share information, debate the appropriate level of “government secrecy”, consider who we trust to tell us the truth. But, what you’ll really leave the theater wanting to know is – what happened between Assange and Bruhl? How does their epic bromance go so wrong, so quickly? How and why did Assange’s right hand man do such a complete 180 on their friendship, the group they founded, the precepts they both ostensibly believed in? There’s much to their story that mirrors classic literary narratives – the energetic young idealist slowly coming to terms with the fact that his beloved mentor is flawed – and that their friendship is tragic in the end only seems to make it more real. Bruhl and Cumberbatch are great together. The two have a believable chemistry and there are moments – such as their scene in a coffee shop where they basically IM with one another rather than talking – where you almost hope that those two crazy BFFs will be able to work it out. And though their relationship carries a sense of the inevitable about it – we all know that Berg will eventually turn on Assange and write the book that turns into this film – there’s sadly little context given to their BFF breakup beyond the fact that the two disagreed about whether or not to redact the infamous Afghan War logs.  Bruhl does his best, ramping up the skittishness and tension in his demeanor as the film goes on, but in a movie that provides buckets of context for almost every other situation throughout the story, the lack of time devoted to one of the story’s central emotional beats feels odd.

Perhaps most disappointingly, The Fifth Estate does a poor job of really exploring the foundations that made (still make?) Wikileaks compelling. Actually, that’s not true. The film raises many important questions that we – as a global society, even – ought to be thinking about, questions which subsequently get lost under the veneer of “digital thriller” that seems to bludgeon all the nuance out of what are, in truth, tremendously complicated relationships and thorny ethical questions. The Fifth Estate is worth seeing, merely for Cumberbatch’s absolute acting masterclass in the lead role. But the rest of the film doesn’t entirely live up to his effort.