Posted on Sunday, September 8th, 2013 by Laremy Legel
The Fifth Estate is an extremely strange movie. That’s fitting, perhaps, given the central focus of the film: Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Star Benedict Cumberbatch is his normal awesome presence, but the story itself should have been redacted.
As a story attempting to encapsulate massive cultural questions regarding government secrecy, privacy rights, dictators, and the misuse of power, it would seem that The Fifth Estate had everything teed up to be a vitally important film. That it doesn’t end up getting there is likely the fault of a weak script or lesser directing, because Cumberbatch, as Julian Assange, comes off pretty great. Yes, the Cumberbatch was willing, but the muddled mess of The Fifth Estate isn’t able to stitch together anything nearing cohesion, even with these significant built-in advantages.
Our story begins at the end and then tracks back to the beginning, much like that little Steve Coogan observation from The Other Guys. WikiLeaks is about to release a treasure trove of U.S. Government secrets, the so-called “Afghanistan War Logs”, and the world awaits with anticipation to see if Mr. Assange will be arrested, murdered, become a hero, or be verified as an absolute lunatic. The New York Times, The Guardian (in London), and Der Spiegel (in Berlin) have done their best to vet and redact anything that would endanger lives, but the huge leak from Private Bradley Manning is still packed full of damning evidence, classified material detailing civilian deaths, military mishaps, and an unprecedented look at how the United States is using military special forces in legally gray war zones.
Furthermore, Assange holds an even bigger trump card in his pocket: non-redacted embassy cables. No one is at all certain as to how he’ll use them, or how events will play out as world leaders decry his brazen leaks. This is WikiLeaks in ascendancy, buzz around the newsroom rising to a crescendo, Assange’s quirks and cadence then seen as facilitating a rising bastion of transparency, major media outlets assisting him in the creation of an unheralded digital empire, beholden to no one, at the fingertips of a complete unknown.
But how did we get here? When did WikiLeaks go from something no one had ever heard of to an entity most were at least familiar with, a force that had major world powers completely spooked? This is the tale of that journey, for better, though mostly worse, and the people behind the Assange facade that made the whole enterprise tick.
In Berlin, two years prior, Julian meets a hacker named Daniel Berg. Mr. Berg loves the idea of the newly founded WikiLeaks, which at the time was revealing the Kenyan elections to be a sham, rallying the general populace to demand their rights. Berg offers to help out Assange, at first on the side, though WikiLeaks very quickly begins to dominate his entire life. Berg and Assange are an unlikely team, one an Australian with a flair for making grandiose pronouncements, the other a German working a normal IT security job, though harboring strong convictions about the sacred trust between whistleblower and authority (which in this case became WikiLeaks).
For the first 30 minutes or so of the film, The Fifth Estate maintains an uneasy balance, almost (but not quite) establishing Julian and Daniel’s complicated relationship, before pivoting to a plot point much tougher to pull off. That part of the story? The idea that Julian Assange might just be an awful boss, a worse human, and a fella who probably shouldn’t be trusted with anything, much less the sensitive documents of others.
In making this choice, showing the “truth” of Assange (and I mean, who really knows, I’m speaking for the film’s intent here) the movie also chooses to collapse as a narrative, because the hero becomes Daniel. Only Daniel isn’t ever really in charge, he’s always following along with the story, nodding, but never a primary catalyst. If we’re to dislike Mr. Assange, and it seems we are, then the film needs to give us something to like, only it doesn’t. It just gives us potential peril, as though it has no idea what point it is even trying to make, not knowing where it wants to shine the bright light. Sadly, the light never does come on, and The Fifth Estate succeeds in making no point at all.
Petty infighting carries most of The Fifth Estate, and that’s a crying shame, because to distill a cultural phenomenon this important, the speeding up of information dissemination up to warp speed, to turn that into a tale about common workplace jealousy and paranoia is to belittle the significance of what’s going on here. Berg sees Assange as a father figure, the icon who will bring the world out of shrouded secrecy, but Assange comes off as a terrible person (in the film).
There was at least a hint of a promising theme here, “Can great works come out of bad relationships?”, but it’s soon clear that no one knows if WikiLeaks is a good or bad thing, or if Assange is a genius or a narcissistic madman bent on attaining the all-encompassing power he decries in others. This is a complicated story to tell, certainly, but The Fifth Estate never really bothers to tell it at all. Though it has great moments, solid work from Cumberbatch, and cultural relevance pre-baked in, it goes the route of a soap opera on Friday. The film wants to ask the big questions, all at once, without pausing to listen for any potential answers.
Assange and his merry band of hackers might want to change the world, but the constant petty squabbles this film focuses on instead make everything feel like a third-rate television movie.
/Film Score: 4 out of 10
Laremy wrote the book on film criticism and hopes the Alex Gibney documentary is a little better.