Like or loath Julian Assange he is a figure that has sparked unrivalled fascination in recent years. The Fifth Estate is the first biopic to cash in on this remarkable figure, and documents the development and growth of Wikileaks, focusing on the relationship between Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his earliest collaborator on the website, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl).
Is this too soon? A dramatised, fictionalised or even romanticised version of events may be acceptable well after the point, but with Assange still holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, fleeing from Swedish authorities over his alleged sexual misconduct, should we not be judging the situation on facts rather than fiction? Well, The Fifth Estate avoids this specific issue by wisely choosing to ignore the rape allegations and focus on Wikileaks and the process of releasing the information. In this sense it’s dealing with things which have, for the most part, been concluded. In addition it gives more publicity to the shocking “Collateral Murder” video leaked from the US military, which can only be a good thing.
Assange was opposed to the making of this film, shown in a letter to Cumberbatch that was made public this week, concerned the film would become a source of propaganda against him. While The Fifth Estate isn’t a wholly flattering portrayal of the man, it’s not propaganda either, as plenty of time is given over to Assange’s pro transparency message, some sympathy with which is necessary to invest in the film in the first place.
Assange’s concerns were based largely on the fact that the film is based on the memoirs of Domscheit-Berg, with whom he had a significant falling out following the release of the US cables. Yet the aspect of the film in which Assange comes off worst is his lack of desire to protect the identities of people in the cables he was leaking, against all good advice, which is a matter of factual accuracy, not a biased attack. But there are two sides to this coin. Showing Assange’s impassioned objection to the Collateral Murder video does the man credit by showing he’s not just a self-aggrandizing attention seeker, but a principled man with a commitment to ending cruelty.
Domscheit-Berg certainly comes across better in the film, but perhaps as a concession to Assange, there is a telling final scene. [I don’t think this is really a spoiler but if you don’t want to know, look away.] It’s an interview with Assange where he talks straight into camera against the idea of a WikiLeaks film. He talks about how any story is only ever one version of events, and how we need to look further to see the truth. This acts as a disclaimer, and its truth-seeking message is a far more fitting tribute to Assange than the propaganda piece he feared, or the glorifying homage he may have wanted.
This film shows Assange’s secret-revealing mission has had mixed success, with the huge amount of focus on him as a person dwarfing the attention given to the information he released. The fact that we would all rather discuss the person rather than the issues themselves is telling. In one scene Assange berates the New York Times for focusing on his physical appearance rather than the explosive material he’s put online, which is odd considering this is a film about a person, and has a peculiar interest in the man’s hair. His grey locks are mentioned several times in a kind of “do you know how I got these scars?” motif which usually involves Assange telling a tale of his past. Then, in a twist worth of an M Night Shyamalan movie, Daniel reveals he once saw Assange dying his hair grey. Never has an attempt to inject drama fallen so flat.
Interestingly, We Steal Secrets, the WikiLeakes documentary released earlier this year, makes for a more compelling watch, and is more successful on an emotional level too. This is thanks in part to focusing on the plight of whistleblower Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, which is left out of The Fifth Estate due to its focus on Assange. But while Assange is the higher profile figure, it’s Manning that’s the greater hero, and perhaps the man more deserving of a film. Neither manages to shed more light on the mysterious Assange, whose closed personality makes it hard to understand his drive and motivations. Cumberbatch does a good impression, for sure, but creates little understanding of him as a person.
The film suffers from a lack of narrative drive, as it feels more like a showing of events than a story. This doesn’t have to be the case with true stories. The Insider, for example, is based on true events, but also feels like it’s going somewhere and manages to pack in anticipation and suspense. The Fifth Estate is nothing more than a documentation of well-known events with no real end point, similar to The Social Network. Your enjoyment of it, therefore, will depend on how interested you are already in Assange and Wikileaks in general. If the answer is “not very”, this film probably isn’t for you.