'Fifth Estate' Blows No Whistles, Plodding Through WikiLeaks Story
Published: Sunday, October 20, 2013
Updated: Sunday, October 20, 2013 23:10
Bill Condon’s latest movie, The Fifth Estate, stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange, the man we all came to fear and admire as our era’s most prominent “whistle-blower,” the owner and founder of WikiLeaks.
This film takes us back to 2007, when Julian flaunted his website everywhere to anyone who would listen—from small lecture halls at one-tenth capacity crowds, to a few guys at what seems like every underground, neon-lit club in Germany. He meets Daniel Domscheit-Berg, played by Daniel Bruhl (yes, one and the same Daniel Bruhl who played Niki Lauda in Rush, which also premiered this fall), a less-than-successful computer hacker who seems bored stiff in his day job and jumps on the opportunity to change the world’s media and perception of news under Julian’s guidance and instruction.
Condon introduces a parallel reality of a newsroom in the clouds—filled with hundreds of desks, computers, and furious typing noises that are meant to represent the WikiLeaks organization. When he first comes aboard, we see the room as Bruhl perceives it to be, with each of these desks filled by one of Assange’s hundred of volunteers, a deception that Assange reveals only after their first big story. In truth, the writers, volunteers, additional servers to run the site, and any outside support are fiction. WikiLeaks is, and always has been, run by Assange alone. The story moves forward as the site grows in popularity, gaining access to ever-more excusive high-profile stories. The camera spends at least half of the movie focused on laptop screens, showing the dialogue through encoded chat room exchanges. While this choice is appropriate for the Internet story, staring at a computer for two and a half hours isn’t the most captivating way to watch a movie. Though the film drags over 128 minutes and spends too much time focusing on text on a computer screen, Cumberbatch was the perfect choice to play the creepy and illusive Assange. His performance is the perfect combination of elegant and unsettling, far from the swarthy villain we met in Star Trek: Into Darkness.
Condon tries to add more of a human element to the story through Domscheit-Berg. First, we see that unpaid, long work hours have taken a toll on Domscheit-Berg’s relationship. While we sympathize with the girlfriend for having an overcommitted significant other, it’s hard to feel too sorry for her when she only became interested in Domscheit-Berg after he let her in on his role with Assange and WikiLeaks. (Honey, if you want to date a hacker/self-proclaimed revolutionary with no income, then you shouldn’t expect too much.) Second, Domscheit-Berg starts questioning the morality of releasing the latest leaked stories when it appears that the lives of Americans could be at risk. He begins fighting back with Assange, a decision that is not at all well-received.
It is at this point that Condon introduces us to some of the concerned members of White House staff, portrayed by Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, and Anthony Mackie. We are now switching back and forth between their concern over trying to contain the leaks, an attempt at which they fail miserably, intermingled with real clips of newsreels of politicians such as Hillary Clinton addressing the issue in 2010, and Domscheit-Berg challenging Assange’s authority from what he perceives as a moral high ground. In the end, Condon wants to ask the audience to consider the role of world media—privacy over reality, censored release of information or complete discretion? It’s up to us to decide.