Late into “The Fifth Estate” Guardian investigative journalist Nick Davies (David Thewlis) says, “most good stories start at the beginning.” I argue that he’s right– about 99% of the time. Unfortunately this look at WikiLeaks and hacker-turned-whistleblower Julian Assange falls into the 1%.
Based on the book “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website” by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, “The Fifth Estate” details the breathless years leading up to WikiLeaks biggest story—the release of the “Collateral Murder video” which showed Iraqi journalists killed by an AH-64 Apache helicopter and the Afghan War Diary, comprised of more than 76,900 leaked documents about the War in Afghanistan.
Assange is one of the more controversial figures of recent history. Is he a journalist? A hacker with an anti-establishment ideology? Or a war criminal with blood on his hands?
The movie presents all possibilities, but can’t seem to decide on one point of view. As played by “Sherlock” star Benedict Cumberbatch, he’s certainly an arrogant leader who says things like “Courage is contagious,” a master manipulator and an active soldier in the information wars, prone to angrily snapping shut his laptop. He’s James Bond with a mouse, on the run from the CIA and Interpol, like a hacker Woodward and Bernstein but beyond the surface veneer we don’t learn much about him other than the origin of his dyed blond hair.
We do get background on the founding of WikiLeaks. We learn that Assange created a system that made real leaks untraceable, disguised by thousands of lines of meaningless code. “Give a man a mask,” Assange says, quoting Oscar Wilde, “and he will tell the truth.” The anonymity WikiLeaks offers works and Assange, along with zealot hacker Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), break many important stories and become shadowy celebrities in the process.
But with their success comes ego and a fracture in their relationship when Assange insists in releasing unredacted versions of sensitive documents related to the Afghan War.
In its first half “The Fifth Estate” gets weighed down with tech exposition. Director Bill Condon tries to keep things lively with frenetic editing and exotic locations but it fails because, unlike “The Social Network,” it doesn’t focus on the people but the website and the ideology. The story picks up when the Afghanistan leaks happen—they are, after all the Pentagon Papers equivalent of the Afghan war, exposing war crimes—which may have been a good place for the story to start, not end.
It’s the most exciting part of the WikiLeaks tale and has the drama the earlier scenes lack.
Cumberbatch acquits himself well, although his long blond locks and Aussie Alan Rickman impression can be a bit distracting.
Also distracting is the film’s overly slick presentation. For a movie that is all about Anarchy in the URL it should have a bit more of a punk rock feel.
“The Fifth Estate” is a rather ham fisted look at the information wars, which contains some drama but takes too long to get to the good stuff.