The Fifth Estate, Bill Condon’s film, now in theaters, about WikiLeaks and its divisive founder, Julian Assange, ends on an amusingly self-reflexive note: Assange (as played by Benedict Cumberbatch) being interviewed about the very film the audience has just seen. “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,” Assange says. And that’s the film’s problem—Condon crams in as many versions of the truth as he can, without moulding them into a definitive narrative.
It’s December 2007, and Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl) is an idealistic computer geek living in Berlin when he bumps into Julian Assange at a technology conference. Assange makes a stirring speech about WikiLeaks, the new site he is developing to protect whistleblowers: “Man is least himself when he talks with his own person,” he says, quoting Oscar Wilde. “But if you give him a mask, he will tell you the truth.” Instantly inspired, Berg volunteers his time and expertise, and quickly becomes part of Assange’s inner circle. When WikiLeaks exposes Swiss bank Julius Baer for money laundering, ever more leaks start pouring in, including classified information about the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—information the US government would rather remain secret.
Despite the obvious similarities—a visionary but reckless tech savant creates a revolutionary website and alienates his best friend—The Fifth Estate is not The Social Network. It lacks the tight script and pacing that helped make the latter so gripping. Instead, Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer have squandered one of the most compelling events in news history for a merely serviceable thriller.
It starts out so well. The film’s opening credits chronicle the history of news sharing, from the earliest cave paintings to cellphones taking snapshots of the Obamas on election night in 2008. Suddenly it’s July 2010, and reporters are scrambling around The Guardian’s offices in London, frantically waving laptops and bits of paper as they prepare to publish the Afghanistan War Logs, simultaneously with Der Spiegel and The New York Times. Meanwhile, a forlorn young man, with a WikiLeaks tattoo down the back of one shoulder, sits waiting for the story to appear on the Guardian’s homepage. Der Spiegel needs more time, but the Times refuses and publishes, much to the irritation of the Guardian.
All heady stuff, for a media reporter like me. If only the rest of the film was as self-assured.
Indeed, the only thing The Fifth Estate has to recommend it overall is a solid cast. Benedict Cumberbatch completely embodies Julian Assange: his charisma and capriciousness, his arrogance, and above all, his Messianic zeal. So strong is the faith that Assange inspires, Berg happily travels all the way to Belgium to assure a source about WikiLeak’s manpower and might, without having met any of the other members in person. Assange believes fervently in transparency and openness, but sees no irony in attempting to keep secrets of his own. He also demands complete loyalty from Berg but, as their organization grows, is jealous of any acknowledgement or media attention Berg receives. It’s a riveting performance that belongs in a better movie.
Daniel Brühl also fares well as Berg, the calm, reasonable counterpoint to Assange’s rashness. Even before WikiLeaks, Berg finds quiet ways of rebelling against authority—when his boss forces everyone to work on New Year’s Eve, he retaliates with unflattering caricatures, ostensibly photocopied using the man’s account. He is genuinely excited by the possibility of lasting, global change. Berg’s disillusionment is inevitable, but Brühl makes it poignant too.
The film also finds room for Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as government operatives, Alexander Siddig as a Libyan informant, and David Thewlis and Peter Capaldi as Guardian journalist Nick Davies and editor Alan Rusbridger respectively. But Condon leaps between perspectives and locations so often, hardly any of the actors or characters make much of an impression. And the frequent trips into ‘cyberspace,’ with WikiLeaks visualized as a Mad Men-era generic office, are similarly ill-advised gimmicks.
The movie’s major failing is its inability to stare Assange and WikiLeaks straight in the eye. Berg and his girlfriend’s argument over the conflicting needs for privacy and transparency—“As Julian says, free people must have knowledge,” he says; “As Orwell says, Big Brother is watching,” she replies—doesn’t amount to much. And the film substitutes a firm position on Assange, and what he represents, with half-hearted attempts at pseudo-psychology: Assange wants to know everyone else’s secrets because beneath the supreme hacker lies a frightened little boy.
The story of WikiLeaks would make a good movie: sadly, The Fifth Estate is not it.