Released 2013. Directed by Bill Condon. Screenplay by Josh Singer, based on “Inside Wikileaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website” by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and “Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy” by David Leigh and Like Harding. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl.
Sadly I couldn’t help myself from leaking a plot spoiler or two.
I love impersonations. A good one is witty and charming; a great one can be transformative. Benedict Cumberbatch’s depiction of Julian Assange, the controversial founder of whistleblowing epicentre Wikileaks, is utterly remarkable, and undoubtedly the biggest virtue of The Fifth Estate. Thanks to his white hair, he bears a certain physical resemblance to the Australian troublemaker (although he remains unmistakeably Cumberbatch), he crucially nails the lilt peculiar to Assange’s voice, and has a decent go of translating a trait particular to those who are elusive, shadowy and unknowable: elusive, shadowy unknowability. His Assange is always slightly unpredictable, his actions not characterised by deceit but never far away from it. It’s probably the only sensible way to access the character, and therefore might be an obvious choice, but Cumberbatch’s portrayal is of such quality that one is forced to look elsewhere for the reason his performance has (perhaps aptly) slipped under the radar of cultural impact and awards consideration. That reason is director Bill Condon, who is doing an impersonation of his own.
Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Ultimatum hangs over The Fifth Estate at every moment. Almost to a scene one can sense its influence here. Okay, it’s unfair to suggest, as I did, that Condon is doing nothing but an impression of Greengrass, but it’s undeniable that the former’s film owes a huge debt to the latter’s, and comes off a clear second best. There is probably nobody better at conveying the lightning-quick flow of data in the modern world and the pandemonium to which it can lead than Greengrass, and for a film whose focus is a man responsible for such chaos, The Fifth Estate conveys it extremely poorly. The best impression we get of the vastly destructive capabilities of whistleblowing in an increasingly digital world, despite it being the film’s central theme and inspiring a flashy opening sequence that traces the history of recorded information from cave paintings to the iPad and Twitter, is when Laura Linney’s State Department official complains time and time again that the government is failing to keep on top of a technologically changing world. Dialogue is used to convey everything; cinematic technique is rarely employed to develop or express themes. Consistently, Condon tells rather than shows, and it prevents this reasonably enjoyable techno-thriller from really engaging with the ocean of issues that Wikileaks has raised.
The other facet of the comparison with Bourne is on the technical side, and it’s here that we see what was responsible for damaging Cumberbatch’s performance. The 2007 thriller defined a kinetic new aesthetic of espionage and action films that has yet to be equalled, though its influence is felt widely. Though he employs Greengrass’ shaky and deliberately imprecise camerawork, Condon sensibly dials down its intensity, but he less sensibly echoes his quick editing, often at times when it is simply not necessary – does Assange giving a slow, disjointed speech to a bored crowd that has never heard of him warrant the same rapidity of cuts that is used to convey the commotion surrounding Wikileaks’ obtaining 250,000 diplomatic cables? It’s at best unimaginative, at worst lazy. As the plot progresses and Wikileaks’ activities become more influential, the stakes higher and personal relationships frayed, the form finally begins to make sense, but most of the time the aesthetic is not only a bad match for the events, it’s actively harmful, destroying Cumberbatch’s work as he does it. That’s why he only “has a decent go” of getting under Assange’s skin: Condon won’t allow him the time and space to develop the character, his unnecessarily intrusive editing reducing a portrait to a sketch. (Though Cumberbatch isn’t actually given a great deal to go on with regards to the screenplay: we’re told about Assange’s problematic childhood and upbringing in a cult, but again, the film is telling, not showing, and Cumberbatch is left out of the process. It’s a minor miracle his Assange is as convincing and developed as it is given the obstacles in his way.)
Films are forever finding themselves unable to make computer use visually interesting, not to mention accessible for audiences unfamiliar with it, and it’s here that we find the most notable instance of the film’s rare inventiveness: the repeated use of a seemingly infinite hall of desks and computers to visually interpret the characters’ covert operations; when they’re virtually together in their secure chatroom, they are physically together in this vast office. At first it’s excruciating to see such a basic idea, the extent of its literalism surely more laughable than it is useful, but it reinforces a revelation in which Daniel (Daniel Brühl), Assange’s new recruit, discovers that the group of Wikileaks volunteers with whom he converses online are, in fact, all aliases of Assange; its use as a visual metaphor is powerful when Daniel deletes the site, a few key-presses translated into an act of arson that leaves Assange wandering a desolate, smouldering wasteland. It’s worth commending because from the moment it was introduced there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that it was absurdly ill-advised; by the end, I’d become quite fond of it. Similarly, the film stylishly and not altogether pointlessly superimposes certain lines of chat text on the screen, for instance, in a sequence in which Daniel thinks he is being followed while messaging Assange. It’s neatly integrated and emphasises the tension of the sequence well. (One wonders, though, why a film that’s so happy for its audience to read superimposed text is not content to have its German characters speak German and use English subtitles. I debated commenting on it, because it seems so trivial, but it is absurd to see non-English characters conversing in English here, as it often is, and suggests a certain lack of seriousness.)
The closing moments of The Fifth Estate are intriguing (and also feature the most pleasing, unmolested specimens of Cumberbatch’s performance). In time-hounoured fashion, intertitles detail Wikileaks’ and Assange’s current statuses, but they are intercut with an interview in which Assange addresses the film itself. Like the visual metaphor for the chatroom, it’s not as cute and simple as it seems. Metareference in film is always comedic. Think of Fight Club‘s “flashback humour”, or the look to camera in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back when Ben Affleck wonders who would want to see… a Jay and Silent Bob movie. I can’t remember seeing it used to convey a serious idea. In The Fifth Estate, a chuckle is raised when Assange says to his interviewer, “A Wikileaks movie? Which one?” But when Assange continues, the tone changes: “Oh, that one. Well, that one is based on the two worst books full of lies and distortion, like all bad propaganda… if you want to know the truth, no-one is going to tell you the truth. They’re only going to tell you their version. So if you want the truth, you have to seek it out for yourself. In fact, that’s where the real power lies, in your willingness to look beyond this story, any story… That’s what they’re afraid of. You.” It’s a clever and sharp moment, one in which the real-life Assange’s reservations about the film are alluded to (he infamously published a letter to Cumberbatch expressing his concern over the film) and in which you’re encouraged to distrust the film and the two books on which it’s based. It’s not a twist – you’re not being told that everything that you’ve seen is a lie and that Assange was dead the whole time – it’s an incitement for the viewer to be less passive, delivered through a quite arresting direct address to camera. The film comes closer at this moment than any other to expressing what is probably Assange’s greatest contribution to and effect on journalism: the realisation of modern technology to democratise information, with a corollary of encouragement on the principle that it is only of use if the public engages. The film’s assessment of Assange as a person is ultimately rather equivocal – he is certainly shown to be less trustworthy than he demands others be, but his dedication to exposing corruption is clearly a positive thing. Its assessment of his impact, though, is far from equivocal, and despite the film’s significant flaws, its case is eventually convincing.
The Fifth Estate, then is about as generic as a thriller can be, and pretty flawed, but saved by the fact that its story is based on true events and its central performance is outstanding, if you’re able to piece it together. The impression left by the film is that you’re doing much of its work for it, bringing your expectations of modern techno-thrillers with you to help put the film together because it hasn’t quite figured it out on its own. There’s just about enough that’s enjoyable and interesting about The Fifth Estate to recommend it, but it’s a film that asks you to meet it more than halfway.