Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl & Alicia Vikander
If Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t get at least an Academy Award nomination for his utterly compelling portrayal of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, he’ll be entitled to think some kind of conspiracy’s afoot. Whether he’ll quite get the gong is another matter, but in a film full of consummate performances, Cumberbatch stood out as particularly impressive. It’s safe to say that this was much more than Sherlock in a wig.
Lovers of geek-chic and The Social Network will feel as if Christmas has come early with this film; as obnoxiously sleek and intelligent as 2010’s dramatisation of the making of Facebook, The Fifth Estate details the rise to prominence and seeming implosion of WikiLeaks, the online whistle-blowing and information disclosing platform founded in 2006 by Assange, which was responsible, via Private Manning, for the biggest leak of classified documentations in US history, with the release of the Iraq War Logs in October 2010. Publicly decried by Assange as being ‘irresponsible, counter-productive and harmful’ The West Wing’s Josh Singer based his script on books by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Guardian journalist David Leigh. Both Domscheit-Berg and Leigh could be argued to have an axe to grind with Assange, partly explaining the disapproval stemming from their ex-boss and associate towards The Fifth Estate, but a movie about the world’s most controversial website would be nothing without a little controversy of its own.
We follow the WikiLeaks story from the point of view of Berg (Bruhl), who may have lost half a surname but at least exists in the fictional universe of the film (Assange would have us believe he barely existed in the WikiLeaks set-up at all. Berg is compellingly played by Brühl, fresh from a star-turn as Niki Lauda in Rush. The Euro-chic of the metropolitan, oh-so-sophisticated locations his character finds himself in is welcome, once you get over the novelty of seeing entire scenes set in some strange, English-speaking corner of Germany, (a film striving to be as intelligent as this could have massaged its audiences’ intellects a tad more, and trusted us with subtitles). Berg is portrayed as slightly more dimensional than your average computer geek – he even gets the girl, an underused Alicia Vikander – and the film, as well as being a dramatisation about the website’s rise to prominence, is also concerned with the relationship between Berg and Assange.
Talking about getting the girl, it was noticeable how stereotypical the female role were in The Fifth Estate; for much of the film, we have Vikander’s Anke as the sole major female character on our screen. Laura Linney’s smooth American attaché added some much needed oestrogen to proceedings, and a film based on real events can’t be expected to shoehorn female characters in for the sake of it, but I do find the choice to focus on the Berg/Assange dynamic – rather than the story of WikiLeaks as a whole, say, or the fallout of the damning information the website released, both of which would have allowed more scope for female characters.
Condon’s visual representation of the website is inventive and accessible, and the whole film has a sleek, sexy air about it, reminding me irresistibly of the British television series State of Play. At just over two hours long, The Fifth Estate feels exactly the right length, staying gripping, intense and involving throughout; another achievement for which Condon, Singer and the excellent cast should be applauded. Pay attention to the montage at the start – it’s worth it. Likewise, fans of cyclicality and repeated scenes will find themselves satiated by Singer’s clever script. Indeed, you feel quite smug for having watched the film, and for keeping up for so long with the intellectuagasm onscreen, until you think again about what the information WikiLeaks leaked actually represents. The use of real news footage, though an old trick in the movie book, lends immediacy to the narrative but also enhances the Russian doll feeling of The Fifth Estate; a film about a media organisation created in part to expose the shortcomings in other media (and governmental) organisations imbued with actual scenes from countless media organisations does make the mind swim somewhat.
Ultimately, good movies take you somewhere else, but great movies inspire you to find out more. Since I watched The Fifth Estate, I’ve been thinking – why was I so ambivalent about WikiLeaks back in 2010? I guess I didn’t understand the implications of such actions fully. Now, however, my interest has been well and truly piqued, by the same movie which Assange is busy decrying from the rooftops. What makes the film come alive is its story. Condon and DreamWorks realised the drama inherent in such a tale, how important the WikiLeaks story is, was and will continue to be, and just how many people are captivated by it. I left the cinema wondering about whose version of the truth to trust – this film’s, Assange’s, my own interpretation? For a movie concerned with the exposing of truth, it’s ironic how the focus is not on the leaks themselves, and what they really mean, but rather the person ‘behind’ them. As Confucius allegedly said, when the wise man points at the moon, the idiot looks at his finger. We’re all idiots in the WikiLeaks saga, and The Fifth Estate exemplifies this. Go and see it – then think about what you’ve seen. We’ll resume the conversation when the Edward Snowden biopic is released…