It should’ve been easy for The Fifth Estate to inspire some sort of reaction or emotion. After all, its subject is one of the most controversial men on the planet: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. But unfortunately the movie’s focus is too much on a crumbling, behind-the-scenes bromance rather than the high-stakes consequences of the site’s mission.
I didn’t know anything about WikiLeaks until the site released thousands of U.S. government documents in late 2010. And even after that, I didn’t understand much about the WikiLeaks organization. So I was looking forward to learning about the background of the site and its enigmatic, white-haired editor-in-chief, played expertly in the film by the omnipresent Benedict Cumberbatch. (Seriously, watch one of Assange’s speeches before you see this movie, because Cumberbatch sounds exactly like him. It is freaky.)
While The Fifth Estate does shed a little bit of light on Assange’s personal history, it’s not enough to provide real insight into why he’s so self-aggrandizing and hell-bent on giving whistle-blowers a safe place to deposit information in the hopes of exposing government or corporate injustices. And that would be OK if Josh Singer’s script instead focused on the ramifications of WikiLeaks’ existence in today’s information-overloaded, hyper-political society. Under what circumstances do data leaks serve the greater good? At what point does the pursuit of the truth risk too many innocent lives? What obligations or responsibilities do those with sensitive information have if they become privy to illegal or immortal activities? What if the whistle-blower isn’t the most stable person himself, or has an ulterior motive?
Those sorts of questions fascinate me, but they’re served up weakly in the movie’s final act and then land with a thud. For example, there’s an ongoing subplot about a U.S. agent whose life is at risk once Assange hits “publish.” There’s a tense scene involving this person’s fate . . . and then an ambiguous conclusion. Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) had a chance to show what’s really at stake when undercover operatives are exposed, and he blew it. Similarly, any scene revolving around the U.S. government was disappointing, filled with clichéd dialogue, and wasted the great talents of Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie.
Instead of diving into the most controversial aspects of WikiLeaks, the majority of The Fifth Estate follows the “friendship” (in quotes because I doubt Assange ever really viewed anyone as a friend) and business partnership between Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg, played by Daniel Brühl, who is also currently on the big screen as famed F1 driver Niki Lauda in Rush. Berg was an Assange fanboy back in 2007 when they first met at a computing conference. He fell under the notorious hacker’s spell and together they built WikiLeaks into a force to be reckoned with. Or at least that’s what this movie would have you believe, as it is an adaptation of two books: one by Berg and another by journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding of The Guardian. Assange has spoken out against these sources.
So there’s a lot of back-and-forth between Assange and Berg as the former tries to convince the latter that WikiLeaks’ site security and architecture is more robust than it actually is. Berg tries to rein Assange in. And they go round and round. Much of this movie reminded me of the fights I used to witness between sales and engineering teams when I worked in corporate America. The salespeople would promise customers things that the engineers knew the product couldn’t do. Exciting stuff, right? Needless to say, the interpersonal squabbles in The Fifth Estate are a snoozefest. While Assange is certainly no angel, Berg just annoyed me more and more as the film went on, and I’m not sure that’s what the filmmakers intended. What a shame it was for any time to be wasted on, say, his romantic relationship. WHO CARES! I can’t even believe this movie covered that crap.
After a dazzling opening credits scene and an unexpected, clever interview with Benedict’s Assange at the end, it’s too bad that the two hours in the middle weren’t nearly as entertaining. If you’re looking for an easy-to-digest capsule summary of WikiLeaks’ history, The Fifth Estate can provide that. But if you’re more interested in the moral and ethical implications of the site, you may want to check out Alex Gibney’s documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks instead. No surprise, but Assange doesn’t approve of that one, either.