Note: this article was also published on Neon Tommy, and an audio version was published on Annenberg Radio News (link no longer available, so audio embedded below).
The Fifth Estate, written by Josh Singer (based on the book by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and the book by David Leigh & Luke Harding); directed by Bill Condon. Produced by DreamWorks. Copyright 2013. (Seen September 24, 2013.)
The Fifth Estate is a bit of an underdog story. In fact, it ends with the expected rousing speech from Nick Davies (played by David Thewlis) about how Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) have “given us the voice, have shown us we have the power to demand the waves of information that one day soon will wash all their evils away.”
But who exactly that underdog is remains to be seen. Is it Assange and WikiLeaks for reporting what needs to be said regardless of who it may hurt? Or is it Domscheit-Berg, for finally saying “enough” and wanting to make Assange as transparent as WikiLeaks itself?
The story, for the most part, is a fast moving one. The opening credits start with a brief history of media in a montage that’s reminiscent of the opening of The Newsroom, and then we are off on the plot. We quickly are shown Domscheit-Berg meeting Assange, and how he is tempted into becoming a volunteer for the burgeoning website WikiLeaks. During an early scene in which Assange is giving a presentation at a conference to maybe ten people, he states, “Two people and a secret. The beginning of any conspiracy, of all corruption,” never realizing that this could very well hold true for his own organization.
While the movie is being advertised as Cumberbatch’s movie (and while Cumberbatch is – unsurprisingly – very good in it), the true acting in it is with Brühl. It’s always the sidekick who does the most work, after all, and Brühl shines in his portrayal of a man who believes fully in the cause – even when he’s not entirely sure what the true meaning of that cause is. It’s an understated performance: Domscheit-Berg goes through the story arc of learning (and re-learning) what little truth about Assange he can, and each lesson learned is believable. It’s a telling sign that we hear three separate reasons as to why Assange’s hair is white, and with each telling, Domscheit-Berg takes notice. Assange is all about transparency, apparently, for everyone but him.
The movie is filmed in the stereotypical faux documentary style, handheld camera angles at the ready. Thankfully, it’s a bit dampened through most of it, making it mostly palpable. The use of actual news footage, but never any footage of Assange himself, throughout the movie is an interesting choice.
While I hadn’t been that keen on seeing a movie based on Assange, the trailer had sold me. While the movie is better than I had hoped, I also feel that the trailer overpromised. It’s probably about a half hour too long, and there are too many subplots that muddle the main story. For a movie about hackers, though, they did a good job of portraying the actual computer interaction. It’s never an easy thing to portray visually, and there are a whole lot of movies out there that do a really bad job of it. The Fifth Estate balances actual computer interface with only occasional metaphor explanation in a way to where it doesn’t detract from the actual story.
Whether this is the true story of the origin of the classified media publishing platform and the main forces behind it remains to be seen. The meta concept that WikiLeaks released the script of The Fifth Estate, including talking points for how the film is a “work of fiction masquerading as fact,” hasn’t gone unnoticed. The film ends with Cumberbatch’s Assange talking about the possibility of a WikiLeaks movie and how it’s all just bad propaganda. The only thing missing is him talking about Cumberbatch playing him.
The posters ask: “Hero or traitor? You decide.” What it doesn’t specify is who they are talking about: Assange or Domscheit-Berg. The case could be made either way.
The Fifth Estate opens nationwide on October 18.
Here’s my audio version: