Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, David Thewlis
You may like this if you like: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (Alex Gibney, 2013), The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010), State of Play (Kevin Macdonald, 2009)
Based on the true story of the founding of the infamous WikiLeaks website and the relationship between its two apparent founders, Julian Assange (Cumberbatch) and Daniel Domcheit-Berg (Brühl) based on two books: One by Berg himself and the other by former Guardian journalist David Leigh. Charting from the first meeting of Assange and Berg and how, using both their unique computer skills they develop on a shoe string budget a website allowing whistle blowers to reveal covert data with complete anonymity. As awareness of WikiLeaks grows, the darker the secrets they reveal get. Until they are given confidential military information about the US Government, that could not only harm the US Government itself, but risk the lives of many individuals mentioned in these leaks. The two men are faced with the fact that when involved in an information war there will always be innocent victims, bringing into question both their own morality and that of the sole principal that WikiLeaks was founded upon.
With WikiLeaks being a permanent news fixture for the last few years, especially here in England with Assange effectively permanently kipping on the Ecuadorian Ambassador’s sofa in London, it is impossible for anyone to enter The Fifth Estate perhaps with an open mind. It does seem strange to me that they have chosen to make another film on something so recent that is still far away from reaching any closure. This is an especially relevant question when in my view The Fifth Estate is a surprisingly neutral and hollow tip-toe through the founding of WikiLeaks that is told in a way that feels more a than a little similar to David Fincher’s surprisingly excellent The Social Network. This is not to say it is in anyway a bad film, I found it very slick and very watchable, but whenever it starts to pose interesting moral questions, these are then quickly thrown away for some more (very recent) history lessons or people frantically typing on what seem to be the loudest computer keyboards in the world.
Of course, when a story revolves around people typing on computers, it is hard to make it cinematic or seem reasonably dramatic, but admittedly Condon adds visual flair to the proceedings. The opening sequence is a rapid history lesson of the written word and the broadcasting of news, and he has made the WikiLeaks hard drive become some metaphorical endless office populated by an endless quantity of Julian Assange’s. It is a visual metaphor that just about works throughout the narrative. Of course expect the usual cinematic clichés of shouting/ chin stroking journalists, extra loud keyboards, computer screens completely filled to the rim of ever changing information that only the characters involved know the meaning of, and of course lots and lots of rapid movements to various geographic locations. As I have said before, this does keep everything very watchable, but once it is all over it is impossible to actually take anything away from it, as I found that The Fifth Estate added quite simply no substance to one of the biggest global news stories of this century so far.
What do help keep things going along are the excellent performances. Cumberbatch nails both the mannerisms and accent of Assange perfectly, creating a fantastic screen presence and essentially owning the film and being its driving force. Being based on two books written by men that fell out with Assange, it was probably inevitable that this story would depict him as a “manipulative asshole”, but this does seem obvious from the start. Brühl himself is again excellent, providing us with a likeable and sympathetic character. I of course do not know all the facts, but the difference between these two characters’ personalities and the inevitable developments in their relationship feels more like a generic plot device than a thought provoking document of history.
Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci, as US Government workers affected by the leaks, also add very little apart from two marketable names on the poster. There may have been the intention of screenwriter Josh Singer for their conversations to provide poignant moral questions of the morality of WikiLeaks and Assange, but they just once again tip toe around subjects any intelligent viewer will be well aware of. Indeed, for me these two characters sum up the entire screenplay, flat and painfully neutral. When a story like this is so recent, a film like The Fifth Estate should surely make a little more effort in delivering some serious substance and posing some truly poignant questions, instead of being what I personally regard as a cynical cash-in.
The Fifth Estate has the feeling of a typical generic Hollywood thriller; directed with vigour and visual flair, but does not tell us anything we did not already know. It is perfectly enjoyable and watchable, but instantly forgettable, as well as being a serious waste of some exceptional acting.