LOS ANGELES, November 13, 2013 — “The Fifth Estate” is a film that takes audiences inside the life of a paranoid, dissociative, manipulative and yet brilliant man named Julian Assange as he tries to take down the world as he sees it.
Assange is painfully brought to the screen by Benedict Cumberbatch who performs his role brilliantly. Playing a real-life, modern-day figure effectively while he’s still alive isn’t easy for any actor to do, but Cumberbatch sinks into his role quite well. Cumberbatch brings much-needed depth and humanity to Assange, the notorious Wikileaks leader, as he undermines governments and corporations while dealing with severe “Mommy” issues.
The films opens with an excellent montage highlighting the history of human communication before it jumps into the nascent beginnings of Wikileaks and Assange’s transformation from a “hacktivist” to a digital anarchist. The film is highly effective in making sure its audience is firmly ensconced in Assange’s world before introducing the people he manipulates to become a part of his Wikileaks creation.
Assange’s co-host in anonymous leaking is Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Berg is played by a masterful Daniel Brühl (who starred in Ron Howard’s “Rush”) and he frankly steals the film.
Serving as Assange’s chief co-conspirator, Berg is effectively the conscience of the film. Each time Assange says “Castro made a revolution happen with just eighty-two men,” declaring he wants to burn the world down, Berg is always as if to question “Why? Why do you want to do this?”
“The Fifth Estate” is not being championed by the real Julian Assange. This may not be surprising, but the story told here is quite complimentary to him in many respects.
On the other hand, there are uneven patches in the film. While there are more than a few comical moments that work well, for example, many more emotional or dramatic moments miss the mark.
The middle third of “The Fifth Estate” feels muddled at times, and it became difficult to keep track of which of the many leak cases was the seminal one that got Wikileaks off the ground. Believe or not, in this film, they all seem to be alike and of equal importance.
The true heart of Assange, at least in this silver screen version of his story, is best revealed via a key scene where Daniel’s parents invite Assange to their home for dinner. Assange becomes unable to deal with the normality and intimacy of Daniel’s family life and he rudely leaves before they eat.
A “chaos man,” Assange only reveals his humanity and humility when forced to do it. The film very ably captures the personal destruction Assange causes when portraying how he megalomaniacally misled the world on Wikileaks’ size and operation. The veritable one-man beginnings of Wikileaks are a revelation and, in this digital age, truly frightening.
As Assange comes under greater scrutiny and more publicly known worldwide, he begins to crack. Ultimately, he begins to turn on those who helped him reach such lofty heights of sudden power.
Rounding out the cast of this film, Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney are both excellent in minor roles as State Department chieftains defending their agency, their foreign contacts and their country against Wikileaks’ full frontal onslaught.
However, Daniel Thewlis as the grizzled, seen-it-all Guardian editor Nick Davies steals the back-end of the film. His command of each scene pulls you in and makes you feel as you are seeing the film through his eyes and not through Assange. That is quite a feat for any actor.
The film’s storyline is ingeniously assembled in a way that genuinely examines the life-and-death morality and ethics at the heart of Assange’s and Wikileaks’ actions. This is one of the strengths of “The Fifth Estate.”
The sudden arrest and strange legal case of Private Bradley Manning is also covered in the film and serves as a huge gut check for everyone involved in Wikileaks. The digital activists surrounding Assange easily foresaw the freedom they provided for whistleblowers, but never foresaw what actually happened to those whistleblowers themselves after their secrets were revealed. Whatever one feels about Manning, it is to the filmmaker’s credit that they treated him as a human being and not simply a treasonous or heroic figure.
The film seems to ascribe some credit for the Arab Spring to Wikileaks before it finally concludes with Assange addresses the audience via a “60 Minutes” interview, speaking directly to the camera. Breaking the fourth wall is an interesting choice for this film, as it brings about an intimacy that hadn’t existed previously.
What Assange says during this interview is surprisingly profound and serves as a good entry point for discussing how our world somehow managed to create Julian Assange and Wikileaks and what will happen when they are gone.
While “The Fifth Estate” is a troubled and troubling film, it is a useful one. Its story and content may give to many who see it a chance to catch up on the bewildering array of technological and social media revolutions that have occurred in just the past five years.
Even the most technologically and politically inclined news junkies will glean a great deal from this film. As Stanley Tucci’s character (State Department Assistant Secretary James Boswell) warily but wisely observes, “Welcome to the revolution!” Yes, indeed.
Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)
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