'The Fifth Estate,' A Media Critique
“The Fifth Estate,” director Bill Condon’s rapid-fire docudrama about the short heyday of the notorious/glorious whistleblower website Wikileaks, maybe isn’t as good as it could have been or should have been, but it’s still a terrific piece of popular entertainment aimed at the middlebrow moviegoer. We’d all be better off if it becomes a multiplex hit.
There are a couple things that might get it there, nothing more pivotal in our celebrity-driven culture than the brilliant perfect casting of suddenly ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch, best of the recent “Sherlock Holmes” wannabes and bad guy in the latest “Star Trek” reboot. Cumberbatch’s magnetic performance as Wikileaks’ founder/mastermind/hero/villain/Svengali figure Julian Assange brings the movie a fascinating, darkly charismatic core even when the film’s narrative gets choppy or the dialog a bit too pat (“Only someone so obsessed with his own secrets could come up with a way to reveal everyone else’s,” someone notes at one point. Blorch.)
The script, adapted from a couple books about Wikileaks, is serviceable and has an earnest, quality TV feel, not surprising once you discover it’s the first filmed screenplay from Josh Singer, a writer for “The West Wing,” “Fringe” and “Law & Order,” among other series. But the pacing is sharp and snappy, and Condon – who’s directed an incongruous mix of movies ranging from the art-house fare of “Gods & Monsters” and “Kinsey” to a couple “Twilight” flicks – effectively captures the crackling electric vibe of an action thriller despite subject matter built upon two guys who spend much of the movie looking at their laptops.
The other guy is German technology activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Bruhl), who was Wikileaks’ spokesperson and a conduit to other collaborators for Assange, the Robin to his Batman. His book, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website, is one of the pieces of source material for the movie, so of course he comes off as the much more sympathetic character (with the much hotter girlfriend to boot). Assange IRL has downplayed Domsheit-Berg’s importance to Wikileaks, but without him the movie would flounder – we get to know Assange through Domsheit-Berg’s eyes, and watch him devolve from somewhat sympathetic anti-hero to megalomaniac, all of which Cumberbatch makes highly compelling to observe.
But past the entertainment value of the film, the most valid reason to root for the general public to embrace “The Fifth Estate” is in the hope it reminds everyone how much valuable clandestine information the renegade website brought to light in a mere five years and how much news it served up like a softball for the news media to clobber, while provoking doubts about how much genuine news is being missed by the mainstream media information complex now that Wikileaks has been largely neutered.
An incomplete list of WIkileaks scoops: Swiss bank Julius Baer enabling huge tax evasion for billionaires through its Cayman Islands branch (and the
U.S. government at first siding with the bank to shut Wikileaks down); publishing Scientology’s secret “bibles”; Sarah Palin’s secret
government Yahoo account; a serious Iranian nuclear power plant accident, which
later turned out to be sabotage; the brutal"collateral murder" video from Iraq, which killed two Reuters reporters (among others), and its
subsequent U.S. cover-up; and a few more, before finally climaxing with the biggest of them all – the massive Department of Defense data dump from Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning.
That’s about when all hell breaks loose and the film starts to slip its focus, concentrating on U.S. diplomats (Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci, good as ever, but….) and a deep cover double agent in Africa who’s threatened with exposure by the Manning documents.
The film’s third act is much more interesting as it peripherally depicts the government and its minions in the media working to turn the conversation from the damning information that's been revealed to a mass media popularity contest that an obsessive, damaged, narcissistic asshole like Assange can’t possibly win. It's a sobering portrait of how the modern mainstream media morphs fact-based information into personality-driven gossip, and it would’ve been good to have more of it because that’s another facet of this story the (wo)man-on-the-street should think about.
Assange has been on a PR whirlwind (well, as much as a whirlwind as you can deliver when you’re holed up inside the Ecuadorian embassy), saying the film is a hatchet job, but I didn’t find it that way at all. First, he’s blessed that they cast Cumberbatch; the guy’s a phenomenal actor, and he’s got a knack for embodying smart, distinct characters who are appealing despite their shortcomings. What I took away from “The Fifth Estate” is that Assange is a deeply flawed man with limited social skills rooted in a tough childhood, but driven by a strong sense of justice and faith in the openness of the internet. And that it requires a person with a massive ego to take on The Powers That Be.
In the end, that’s what I think it all comes down to. You’ve got to have a bit of a Messianic streak in you if you think you’ve got any shot at all at taking down The Establishment. Nice guys don’t do it, don’t even try. If the movie painted Julian Assange as a misunderstood nice guy, as I’m sure he would prefer, nobody would buy it. Because it’s surely not true.
The film ends abruptly, but it gives Assange the last word, with Cumberbatch as Assange answering questions in an interview. The last question is about the very movie we just watched, and he rips it pretty good. Irony? Overcompensation? Hero? Villain? Does it even matter? If you leave the movie discussing what it all means and what you just saw, then it’s a success and Assange, whether he likes it or not, should be happy. And not only because you’ll be talking about him.