Is it possible to make an accurate WikiLeaks film? As Benedict Cumberbatch’s Julian Assange puts it in the closing minutes of The Fifth Estate, the truth changes through every viewpoint – thus posing the question, what is the truth? And who really knows it?
Bill Condon’s ambitious and zealous biopic on the early days of WikiLeaks is an entirely mixed bag. It exerts itself in trying to give a broad picture of WikiLeaks whilst honing in the relationship of founder Julian Assange and his second-in-command Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Benedict Cumberbatch nails the former’s twitchy tics and pronounced accent, and his portrayal, although not exactly fair on Assange himself, is one of the highlights of The Fifth Estate. Likewise Daniel Brühl (who recently excelled himself in Rush) does a more than serviceable job as Domscheit-Berg, a wide-eyed and docile follower of Assange who is deluded into believing he is the latter’s equal.
The two leads’ performances are ultimately the high points of the film but there’s an undeniable emptiness about the whole thing that you really start to notice after the first half hour.
The Fifth Estate begins by putting its cards on the table, presenting a cutting-edge title sequence that chronicles the evolution of technology. It’s flashy and polished, already setting the film out as a brash affair. Indeed, cinematographer Tobias A Schliessler never halts the camera, continually propelling the movie onwards. He peers at the cast through glass-fronted offices, from higher levels (particularly concentrating on Cumberbatch’s Assange), from over their shoulder, creating a kind of paparazzi effect. Schliessler also employs another cinematic technique when we occasionally cutaway to the WikiLeaks ‘headquarters’. It’s a darkened office, illuminated by strip-lights hanging from nothing. Rows and rows of desks line it, each with different nameplates, each with Julian behind them. It’s a surreal landscape, visually well crafted but a ham-fisted effort by Condon to convey the scale of Julian’s ego.
As The Fifth Estate progresses into its final quarter it becomes clear what is happening. Julian Assange is, or was, a man with a bold vision, a technology-wielding freedom fighter that simply wanted to make the world a better place. But with the dramatic success of WikiLeaks, his ego started to dwarf and diminish his goal. WikiLeaks stopped being a website disclosing the truth, it became a vehicle for Assange to loom large in the public eye.
David Thewlis takes the supporting role of Nick Davies, sadly given the job of portraying what amounts to a cliché on legs. Davies, an investigative reporter, stumbles after the truth, bursting into offices with ideas and exclusives, scratching his chin and pondering his next move. In a similar part, soon-to-be Time Lord Peter Capaldi frowns from the back of the room as the Guardian’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger. Capaldi plays him as a man that’s never too sure exactly what is going on, but nonetheless he knows it’s something bad. But whilst Thewlis and Capaldi both turn in strong work, neither feels like the logical fit for their respective roles.
Director Bill Condon (who previously gave the world the wonderful Gods And Monsters) has tried very hard to make The Fifth Estate feel like it was made yesterday and he pulls it off. Interlacing Twitter and Facebook into the film really adds to its modernity, but this is all padding to disguise the hollowness at the core of The Fifth Estate. The pizzazz fizzles out after a while and the movie really sags. After all, biopics need real substance or they just slide into irrelevance. Condon has a track record in this genre – just look at what he did with Liam Neeson in Kinsey – but unfortunately The Fifth Estate isn’t his finest offering.
The politics of WikiLeaks are, to a surprising extent, ignored in The Fifth Estate. Assange is portrayed as a techie activist whose ego overwhelmed his aim and the Scandinavian rape allegations are held off until the end and posted as a footnote. The opposition he faces is primarily American (represented by Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney and Anthony Mackie) and although this is true, hostility from other countries towards WikiLeaks are referenced inconsequentially. WikiLeaks did much more than just leak confidential files and face a global backlash, there is so much ignored here.
Cumberbatch performs impressively – the way he has mimicked Assange’s mannerisms and idiosyncrasies is Oscar-worthy – and Brühl too, but The Fifth Estate buckles under the tonnage of information it has to process. If you want to see something that really dishes out the facts and doesn’t fictionalize or trivialise anything then try We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, a compelling documentary released in July or the recently broadcast More4 programme, WikiLeaks: Secrets and Lies instead.
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