I finally got around to watching The Fifth Estate, the dramatization of the whole Wikileaks saga starring the marvellous Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange. The film is directed by Bill Condon, probably best known for the final two instalments of the Twilight Saga, and like those films, it was released to mixed reviews.
The Fifth Estate is more or less a more “grown up” attempt to replicate the tension and drama of The Social Network (you know, the one about the founding of Facebook). Like Mark Zuckerberg, Aussie Julian Assange is a brilliant but douchey loner who invents something that will change the world. It brings him fame (though in this case not fortune) and the notoriety he craves, but his growing ego also leads to a falling out with a close friend, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (the Eduardo Saverin of this story). The other major difference to The Social Network is that the stakes are much higher — it’s about lives rather than just money.
The film is based on Domscheit-Berg’s side of the story, and Assange publicly bashed the film without having seen it (he said he read the screenplay), calling it a “serious propaganda attack on WikiLeaks and the integrity of its staff” and a “lie built upon a lie.” He even implored Cumberbatch not to take the role, though he apparently tried to get his ghostwriter Andrew O’Hagan to split the fee for the latter to act as a consultant on the film. None of this is surprising if the version of Assange depicted in the film is anything close to the real deal — ie, an megalomaniac, a weirdo and a dickhead.
Some critics such as Mark Kermode said they found the handling of the film “too even-handed,” though I felt it was just right. Wikileaks is depicted as both a positive and a negative, which it is, but also as a dangerous tool that can cause real risk to innocent lives if put in reckless hands. As for the depiction of Assange, he is shown as a flawed character, to put it nicely. I don’t think they were trying to hold back on what they thought of him.
The performances are what really drive the film. Cumberbatch doesn’t look much like Assange, even with the white hair, but he nailed the voice and the Aussie accent. Assange said it was “grating” to hear someone who isn’t Australian do an Australian accent and an impersonation of his voice, but if that’s the case then he must find it grating listening to himself, because Assange was close to perfection.
I became a fan of Daniel Bruhl after seeing him in the underrated Rush, and he was also very good here as Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Cumberbatch outshone him because he is Assange, but Bruhl held his own as protagonist audiences can relate to. The rest of the supporting cast, which includes Anthony Mackie, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney and David Thewlis as Nick Davies from The Guardian, was also solid.
Given that most of the stuff in the story happens on computers, which is very boring, The Fifth Estate tries to spice things up by building a frenetic pace through tense chatrooms, busy newsrooms and a sense of paranoia from being spied on or even chased by authorities. It’s well-intentioned, but unlike The Social Network, it doesn’t have Aaron Sorkin penning the script and thus misses a certain snappiness to the drama and in particular the dialogue. That’s perhaps its biggest downfall, though I still think it’s a worthwhile film to watch if you have an interest in Wikileaks and/or the truth vs security debate.
3.5 stars out of 5