Directed by: Bill Condon.
Written by: Josh Singer based on the books by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and David Leigh & Like Harding.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch (Julian Assange), Daniel Brühl (Daniel Berg), Alicia Vikander (Anke Domscheit), David Thewlis (Nick Davies), Laura Linney (Sarah Shaw), Anthony Mackie (Sam Coulson), Stanley Tucci (James Boswell), Peter Capaldi (Alan Rusbridger), Jamie Blackley (Ziggy), Moritz Bleibtreu (Marcus), Carice van Houten (Birgitta Jónsdóttir), Alexander Siddig (Dr. Tarek Haliseh).
Part of the problem with making a biopic about Julian Assange is that no one really seems to know who he is, aside from the egomaniacal public persona he has worked so hard to cultivate. For a man obsessed with exposing everyone else’s secrets, Assange is one of the most secretive public figures of our age. Does anyone really know who the man is? Is he really nothing more than his public persona? Despite an impressive, spot-on performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, who nails Assange’s voice, mannerisms and public persona, I still don’t think I have any idea who Julian Assange is as a person. That leaves somewhat of a hole at the center of The Fifth Estate.
The film mainly focuses on Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl), whose book the movie is (partly) based on (it’s based on another one as well). This is somewhat smart, as it allows the film to have a character we can get to know at its core. Berg is a computer genius, wasting his talents in an office job, who already knows who Assange is when they meet in 2007, even though few others do. Assange has already founded WikiLeaks, the website that will soon make him one of the most famous and controversial men in the world, but few are paying attention to him then. Berg convinces Assange that WikiLeaks could use his help – and soon he’s Assange’s right hand man, helping him expose warlords, corrupt banks and governments the world over. They go from an organization that few have heard of, to one that is being talked about everywhere – and a big part of that is Assange, who is a charismatic and convincing speaker. When they bring down a billion dollar bank, they can no longer be ignored. When they have a video showing American forces in Iraq killing reporters, and innocent civilians, they cause a sensation. When they get the biggest leak of classified documents in history about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – they team up with three large papers – The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel – to ensure they cannot be silenced. But while this story seemed like it would be just the beginning of WikiLeaks and their power, it pretty much marked its end. The three news organizations are all willing to exploit WikiLeaks and their information, but they still didn’t respect Assange all that much. He was a muck raker, not a real reporter to them, and when he comes under fire, they quickly distance themselves from him. And while the papers wanted to ensure that some of documents were redacted to protect real people from being killed, Assange didn’t give a crap.
All of this is well known by now – really, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the story of WikiLeaks – or at least its highlights. The Fifth Estate tries hard to dramatize the events into one two hour movie. In some ways, the film works. I cannot imagine an actor better suited to play Assange than Cumberbatch, who really is excellent here. And Daniel Bruhl makes a sympathetic entry point for the viewer – an idealist who loves Assange, but slowly becomes disillusioned. That’s one of the oldest stories in the book – but it can still be effective if told right. The screenplay by The West Wing-vet Josh Singer moves things along quickly, as does Bill Condon’s direction – even if at times the film does kind of play like it was directed by an old man trying to be edgy. I was never bored by The Fifth Estate.
And yet, I was never really involved in it either. The story is so well known, that I wish that the film had taken a new angle on it, rather than just repeat what everyone already knows – which it doesn’t. I wish the film would have dispensed with such clichés as the role the talented Alicia Vikander is saddled with as Berg’s girlfriend – who is either supportive of him, or angry with him, based on whatever the screenplay requires at the time. I wish that the newspaper men – represented here by David Thewlis – had been given more to do except make speeches (Thewlis’ speech at the end of the movie sounds like a sermon, delivered directly to the audience). And I almost wish the subplot involving three great actors – Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie – about the U.S. governments efforts to protect those who may be exposed by WikiLeaks was given its own movie – it’s more fascinating than much of the rest of the movie, but handled so quickly that it almost feels like it doesn’t belong in the movie at all.
But most of all I wish that The Fifth Estate had given me some sort of portrait of who the real Julian Assange is. The film doesn’t seem to have any clue, so it gives us mere snippets and speculation. It doesn’t seem to ever make up its mind on Assange, and leaves you knowing as little about the man as when you walked into the theater. Yes, you can make a movie where you leave the central character an enigma – and it can even be a great movie (see Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There about Bob Dylan, which gives us many different Dylan’s, perhaps all, some or none of them the “real” Dylan). But The Fifth Estate is not that film. Instead, it keeps teasing us, revealing some information, than pulling back. I think they were trying to challenge the audience, but it just left me frustrated.
You could make a great movie about Julian Assange – Alex Gibney’s excellent documentary: We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks from earlier this year is better than The Fifth Estate – but it does require the filmmakers make some sort of choice. Unfortunately the filmmakers never really do, so they leave an excellent opportunity – and performance by Benedict Cumberbatch – dangling.