The Fifth Estate review: WikiWeak

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The Fifth Estate yellow light Benedict Cumberbatch Carice van Houten Daniel Bruhl

Might be interesting if it had enough passion and guts to take a stand, but ends up in the mushy middle of the road, which surely sprang from a desire to be “fair” and “balanced.”
I’m “biast” (pro): fascinated by Julian Assange and WikiLeaks; adore Benedict Cumberbatch

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

There was a small knot of confused-looking people hovering around outside the opening-day multiplex showing of The Fifth Estate I attended in central London, trying to push flyers on moviegoers that would convince us that the film is a propagandistic anti-Assange, WikiLeaks-bashing hack job. They were still there when I exited, and it was all I could do to restrain myself from asking, “Have ya actually seen the film?”

Cuz The Fifth Estate is nothing of the kind. It might actually be interesting if it had enough passion and guts to take a stand, even a potentially wrongheaded one. Instead, director Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, Kinsey) appeared to have been aiming for something to the bland side of “admirable,” and ends up with a mushy middle-of-the-road-ness that surely sprang from a desire to be “fair” and “balanced,” the nonsensical pretense of impossible objectivity that is killing journalism. And so the whole movie feels as if it’s constructed from slightly stilted staged re-creations intended for a newsy documentary about the whistleblower site and its founder.

What’s missing here is personality. Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that Australian hacktivist Julian Assange is one of the more fascinating public figures to emerge in the Internet era. Even if he’s the creepy, rapey jerk he’s been accused of being, that has no bearing whatsoever on how he has completely changed the rules on government secrecy, global diplomacy, corporate whistleblowing, and just plain ol’ highlighting how the flow of information has radically changed in the 21st century. (The Swedish rape accusations are not covered in the film, which any decent propagandistic anti-Assange, WikiLeaks-bashing hack job would certainly have jumped on.) Whether you think his work with WikiLeaks — such as publishing U.S. embassy communications that were potentially embarrassing, or posting videos of American soldiers committing war crimes in Afghanistan — is right or wrong, there’s no denying that Assange has shown how one person with a laptop can change the world.

And while The Fifth Estate makes it plain that WikiLeaks was, at least at the beginning, very much the work of Assange alone, the film cannot decide whether it wants to be about Assange as a driving force — and what drove him — or the power of WikiLeaks and its potential as a platform for ending damaging secrecy. (If it were possible for a single two-hour film to cover both angles, there is no evidence of that here. I look forward to the ten-part Netflix series a decade hence that gets it all right.) Condon didn’t only manage to tamp down Assange’s obvious talents for public speaking in the portrayal of him here, he also succeed in achieving something I would have said was impossible: demagnetizing the incredible screen presence of Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey). It doesn’t start out this way: the first meaty scene of the film takes place at a 2007 Internet conference in Berlin at which Cumberbatch’s Assange bullies his way into some public-speaking time while also deriding the conference to hacker Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl: Rush, 2 Days in New York), whom he has just scooped up into his field of influence by complaining that everyone at the conference only wants to talk about online gaming while there’s so much more important work that could be done. We’re smacked here by the notion of Assange as kind of an asshole, but one who wants to change the world for the better.

But that’s the most compelling Assange-the-character ever gets here, as the film moves forward to 2010 and the Bradley Manning documents that have drawn (so far) the most heat to WikiLeaks’ work. It almost feels as if Assange is absent here for long stretches, which get filled with outlier characters such as Peter Capaldi’s (World War Z, In the Loop) Guardian editor and Laura Linney’s (Hyde Park on Hudson, Arthur Christmas) State Department official fretting in ways neither down to earth enough to give us a gritty sense of the opportunity-slash-danger that WikiLeaks presented nor over the top enough to offer some good old-fashioned wretched melodrama. Though there is true horror in seeing the likes of Capaldi and Linney wasted like this. Oh, and the amazing David Thewlis (Red 2, Anonymous), too: he’s wasted as a journalist trying to balance out the need for security with the need for transparency. They don’t have conversations so much as talking points, as if they were reciting from policy memos on a Sunday morning talk show.

There are a few engrossing tidbits. At one point, someone mentions how modern newspapers grew out of pamphlets printing news that was forbidden, like details from Parliamentary debates in England that were by law kept secret, a clear analogy with what WikiLeaks is doing… but there’s more sense of danger and dissent from centuries ago in that one line of dialogue than the movie manages to convey about what’s happening today in front of us up on the screen right now.

And there’s this amazing thing: WikiLeaks had a guy (Moritz Bleibtreu: World War Z, 360) in Sweden or somewhere who hid the site’s servers in his barn, among the cows. There’s a whole movie right there, about guys who keep secret servers in the barn because what they’re up to is so incendiary that jackbooted stormtroopers might descend at any moment. That movie certainly couldn’t teach me any less about Assange and WikiLeaks than The Fifth Estate does.

based on Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website by Daniel Domscheit-Berg [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.]

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Tue, Oct 15, 2013 3:19pm

I can see why someone might regard this as an attack on Wikileaks: it’s the same treatment that the NSA/GCHQ wiretapping revelations are currently getting in the UK press, being mostly ignored, and occasionally made to look boring and done by weird people and nothing to do with you, dear reader. Cumberbatch does seem to have become the default actor when someone wants to send the message “this person is not neurotypical, and may be dangerous”.

reply to  RogerBW
Sat, Oct 19, 2013 11:41am

Hrmmm… Almost as if it was done by design?