D: Bill Condon / 128m
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Peter Capaldi, Moritz Bleibtreu, Carice van Houten, Jamie Blackley, Stanley Tucci
Remarkably similar in tone and circumstance to the creation of Facebook as shown in David Fincher’s The Social Network, The Fifth Estate shows how WikiLeaks became such a global phenomenon.
In the beginning, Julian Assange (Cumberbatch) is shown struggling to get his site acknowledged by the wider Internet community. A fortuitous meeting with Daniel Berg (Brühl), a bored IT expert, gives Assange the help he needs in expanding and publicising WikiLeaks, and sets them on the road to international notoriety. Along the way they expose dictatorships, a tax-avoiding Swiss bank, rigged elections, and more. Then comes the tipping point: over 250,000 leaked documents relating to the US war crimes in Afghanistan, and diplomatic cables that describe the US’s real feelings about the various governments and world leaders it deals with. Assange and Berg fall out over how to disseminate the information, and the future of WikiLeaks is brought into sharp relief.
Already disowned by Assange, The Fifth Estate shows WikiLeaks’ creator to be narcissistic, arrogant, paranoid, and a user of other people. Cumberbatch plays him superbly, all grating Australian accent and sneering condescension; but how close a representation of the man it really is, is difficult to tell. Based in part on Berg’s own book, the movie skirts perilously close to demonising the man, while Berg comes out of it looking whiter than white. For a film about a man with a burning desire to show people “the truth” about the world they live in, it’s a dangerous approach to take. This is one-sided reportage, and the film ends with Cumberbatch as Assange making reference to the film itself and dismissing it; it’s an uncomfortable coda, even though Assange has made his feelings clear about the movie.
That said, the movie is a gripping retelling of recent events and holds the attention throughout. The cast are uniformly excellent, and even though the script by Josh Singer contains large chunks of exposition, it’s all presented in an easy-to-follow manner. Condon, fresh off the challenges of the final two Breaking Dawn movies, directs confidently and with a clear eye for the complexities of the material. It’s a movie that will attract controversy for some time to come, but as a jumping off point for the wider issues involved, this is where the movie really succeeds.
Rating: 8/10 – powerful, with two mesmerising lead performances, The Fifth Estate is thought-provoking, intelligent and remarkable; while it’s not as rigorous in its approach as it would like to be, it’s still a fascinating examination of a recent global phenomenon.