Film Review: The Fifth Estate
Behold the WikiLeaks movie, an eye-popping, fast-paced, world-trekking encrypted bromance about the digital dissemination of the globe’s governments’ secrets for the good of the masses, or not. Bill Condon’s latest feature opens with a clever montage of how knowledge has been distributed and shared throughout the history of mankind, making a point of the inevitability of an entity like the internet to develop and become the main source for, well, everything. Unsurprisingly, such an omnipotent weapon is sure to be misused or to evolve into a form that serves not the purposes of those in power, but those whose agenda deviates from the system: hackers.
Serving as a one-sided pseudo-biopic on top of all the other hats it tries to wear, the film focuses on celebrity-hacker, currently living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and his unofficial partner in crime, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl). After meeting in Berlin the pair embarks on a cyber-revolution to spread untold stories of corruption, oppression, and cover-ups around the world.
Under the false pretense that the organization consists of hundreds of anonymous volunteers, Daniel feels empowered to pursue bigger things, until his personal life and the media’s attention collapse with Julian’s, according to the film, unparalleled narcissism. It’s a movement of two against an entire network of people who are trying to keep the truth under the rug, or at least the film should be about that, but it is not.
It is about deciphering Julian’s reasoning via his childhood trauma as a member of a cult, it is also about Daniel’s idolization of him and his own reasons to be part of the organization. It could also be about why is it good that the government keeps classified information from its citizens, or about an underdeveloped side story of U.S. government official Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney) and a Libyan informant, or perhaps about how the mainstream media took part in the WikiLeaks ordeal.
As one might expect, despite the brilliant performance by Cumberbatch, it ends up being about tons of peripheral information and about nothing concrete. It is not to say that the story should have picked sides, but its lack of a central focus makes it feel dually preachy: “It is good to let people know what corrupt governments do, oh yeah, but it is also not cool to do so when the lives of those involved are at risk, so it is definitely bad, for the most part, but there is nothing certain”. The ambivalence wouldn’t be a problem if the film would concentrate on finding out what it really wants to be, a cautionary tale or a revolution-inspiring work.
There is also a magical realist imaginary realm in which everything now digitalized becomes tangible once again for the purpose of exposing Daniel and Julian’s vision of their mission and eventual downfall. A seemingly endless room full of desks is inhabited by lonely Daniel or by the hundreds of fake personalities Julian calls his “volunteers”. This metaphorical cubicles come equipped with pieces of imaginary paper that represent the thousands of files in one of their monumental exposés, which allows Daniel to, in his mind, destroy material objects and burn said papers. Yes, if there is something the digital era still can’t replace is the satisfaction of trashing a place and physically releasing anger by recurring to destructive and violent behavior. Certainly a strange touch that plays with the idea of the evolutions of how information is shared.
Final Verdict: Relevant to the times indeed, the film’s greatest flaw is toying with too many conflicting ideas in a rather messy fashion. Tonally jarring shifts in a script that travels as many times between themes as it does between countries. There is no denying how crucial the WikiLeaks revelations are in the current state of globalization and digital interaction between individuals and governments, but the approach fails by caricaturing the figures involved. Cumberbatch rescues the film with a role that is created from accounts by others about Julian, not on the site’s creator himself. Still, for all the manipulation, The Matrix-like visual style and The Social Network-inspired antics, something good can be learned from Condon’s The Fifth Estate: Check the facts for yourself.