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 at least 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. And by overlooking the allegations against him it arguably does him a service.
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. And it does make a point of suggesting the film is only one version of the events.
This film shows the limited success of Assange’s mission, with the huge amount of focus on him as a person dwarfing the attention given to the information he released. 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 is a biographical film about Assange, complete with a weird level of interest in the man’s hair.
His grey locks are mentioned several times in a kind of Joker “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. And we rarely feel like we get to know Assange as a person. Cumberbatch does a good impression, for sure, but the film tells us little we don’t know already.
The film suffers from a lack of narrative drive, as it feels more like a showing of events than a story. 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. And even if you are there are better films our there.
We Steal Secrets, the WikiLeaks documentary released earlier this year, makes for a more compelling watch, and is more successful on an emotional level too. This is thanks to the focus on whistleblower Chelsea Manning, someone who genuine personal sacrifice without Assange’s self-aggrandisement. So if you want to know more about what happened, We Steal Secrets is preferable to everyone except the Cumberbitches.