Biopic Drama

Declassified Film Review: The Fifth Estate

October 18, 2013Ben Mk


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Strike back against the empire

It's been well-publicized that Julian Assange isn't a fan of The Fifth Estate. Just last week, word leaked about the open letter he sent to actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who portrays him in the film, stating as much. In fact, there's a very meta moment in the film where Cumberbatch, as Assange, addresses an off-camera interviewer and says, "What WikiLeaks film? Oh, that WikiLeaks film". He then goes on to make known his disdain for the film and to point out that truth is not a definitive concept -- there are only the different versions of it that people tell -- and that it is up to you, the viewer, to find out for yourself. So, does The Fifth Estate condemn Assange for his tactics, or does it paint him as a martyr for the new wave of citizen journalism?

Lies. Deception. Censorship. When we first meet Assange in the film, these are the things that he claims to be fighting against. But, just as WikiLeaks' labyrinthian submission platform makes it almost impossible for anyone to determine the source of a leak, the truth behind the man is not as easy to get to. The film is best described as The Social Network meets the Bourne franchise -- part tech platform origin story, part taut political thriller. Viewers are introduced to the story at a crucial moment in the history of WikiLeaks -- the simultaneous release of the Afghanistan War Logs by The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2010 -- before they are taken back to 2007 to witness how it all began.

Much like The Social Network's account of the rise of Facebook, The Fifth Estate chronicles how Assange and company transformed WikiLeaks from a homegrown startup into an almost-unstoppable juggernaut. And, like David Fincher's film, the core of director Bill Condon's film is the partnership between Assange and his collaborator, Daniel Berg (played by Daniel Brühl). If Assange is the driving force behind WikiLeaks, then Berg is surely its moral compass. Much of the film is framed around his experience, and how he goes from being enamoured by Assange's motto -- "courage is contagious" -- to questioning the ethics of their organization's actions. As the old adage goes: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Through Berg's eyes, we watch as Assange's actions grow as questionable as those of the morally bankrupt goliaths they work to bring down -- and how Assange himself proves to be guilty of the lies, deception and censorship he so vehemently opposes.

There are political elements to The Fifth Estate as well, thanks to the world stage on which events unfold. Although WikiLeaks initially trains its sights on exposing corruption at a major Swiss bank, things soon turn to toppling foreign regimes and government subversion. All of this stokes the ire of government agencies and foreign parties alike, threatening the safety of sources and placing lives at risk. Everything comes to a head with the largest release of classified information in US history -- the Afghanistan War Logs and a quarter of a million US diplomatic cables.

Despite the international espionage at play, the focus of the film remains the tenuous relationship between Assange and Berg. Cumberbatch and Brühl are both excellent in their roles, but of their two characters, it's Berg that the film sides with. Although the film is fair and balanced early on, it later leans towards the notion of Assange as something of a sociopath. It's impossible to resist the comparison between Cumberbatch's portrayal and the Joker, from The Dark Knight. In The Fifth Estate, Assange is an enigma -- an anarchist; he doesn't want to watch the world burn, but he wants to upheave the status quo -- and he'll stop at nothing to do so. Like the Joker, who, in The Dark Knight, offers up several explanations for the origin of his scars, Assange muses on the different reasons for why his hair is completely white. We never get to know his full backstory, just that he is not all that he appears to be. As they note in the film: who better to expose the secrets of others than a man with secrets of his own?

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, The Fifth Estate is not condemning of the direction that Julian Assange has taken journalism. There is good that can come out of the greater accountability and transparency that WikiLeaks, as an organization, aims for. What it does take an unfavorable stance on is Assange's attitude and lack of empathy in seeing WikiLeaks' mission through to the end. Is it a fair portrayal of the infamous Julian Assange, or just one version of the truth? Either way, The Fifth Estate presents viewers with an intriguing, engaging and thrilling study of the rise (and fall) of WikiLeaks and its founder. Now it's up to you to decide for yourself. [★★★★]


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