‘The Fifth Estate’
For a film about an organization dedicated to presenting the unedited truth, “The Fifth Estate,” frustratingly, reveals surprisingly little about its key players.
And it goes about it in a confusing and unsatisfying way.
Though the subject matter begs for an emphasis on personal drama, director Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”) has opted to tell the story of Wikileaks, and its brilliant creator Julian Assange, in the style of a techno-thriller. As a result, while he keeps things hopping around on the surface, with lots of frantic skullduggery and furious intellectual debate, the most important part of the story remains untold. Namely, who is Assange, really, and what was his true motivation for exposing the secrets of some of the most powerful organizations and governments in the world?
Condon opens “The Fifth Estate” (written by “West Wing” scripter Josh Singer) at the height of Wikileaks’ power and influence, when it collaborated in 2010 with The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel to publish a portion of the half-million secret United States diplomatic cables it had received from U.S. army private Bradley Manning. After milking their coordinated effort for deadline tension, he flashes back to 2007 and the meeting of Assange (another impressive performance by Benedict Cumberbatch) and his soon-to-be partner Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl of “Rush”) at a Berlin hacker’s convention.
Unkempt and abrasive, but with the passion of a revolutionary, Assange impresses Berg with his presentation of Wikileaks, a site he has created that allows whistle-blowers to leak secret documents without fear of discovery or reprisal. And Berg decides to join his worldwide organization of hundreds of volunteers. And to stay, oddly, even after discovering that the other volunteers he had been communicating with were really Assange — and that Wikileaks, in fact, is just the two of them.
That’s a fascinating scene and it suggests how extremely good this film might have been if Condon had chosen to focus more on Assange’s inner workings. Aside from a couple of teasing revelations about Assange being on the autistic spectrum and having spent his childhood on the run from an Australian cult, he’s content to present him at face value. Perhaps because Assange still remains a mystery to a certain extent. “The Fifth Estate” was based on two books Assange (who is currently avoiding prosecution in the Ecuadorian consulate in London) has repudiated, including an insider account from Berg. Which may explain why he gradually morphs from the revolutionary idealist of the opening to the reckless and irresponsible megalomaniac of the finale — and then, perplexingly, back again as the film ends with Cumberbatch giving Assange the last word with a reasoned, talking-head rebuttal of what we’ve just seen.
Whatever the reason, “The Fifth Estate” soon becomes fairly baffling as the cluttered narrative (including detours into panic in the U.S. state department and Berg’s romantic life) bounces back and forth in time while recounting some of the most devastating revelations to appear on Wikileaks: death squads in Kenya, a nuclear disaster in Russia, U.S. troops gunning down unarmed civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters employees.
Part of the problem is the fragmented timeline, but it doesn’t help that Condon tries to camouflage the shallowness of the film’s intellectual content with hyperactive editing and flashy visual gimmicks. Important issues are raised here — such as whether or not the world has a right to the truth even at the potential cost of innocent lives — but the arguments are superficial and nothing much is resolved.
Maybe the more serious trouble is that Condon is trying to tell a story that hasn’t sorted itself out yet.