Julian Assange doesn’t get to the movies too often these days and if he did, it certainly wouldn’t be to see The Fifth Estate. In a recent open letter to lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch he wrote “the film is based on a deceitful book by someone who has a vendetta against me and my organisation” and later described the film to an NY Times reporter as “a reactionary snoozefest that only the US government could love”.
Director Bill Condon has comfortably exceeded these expectations as Cumberbatch gives a convincing performance as the paranoid renegade hacker Assange and his interplay with collaborator Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl) – whose tell-all book about Wikileaks forms the basis of the film – leaves you wanting more.
The Fifth Estate is at its most engaging when the transgressive, righteous thrill of Wikileaks comes to the fore. As Assange weaves in and out of international airports rallying his cyber troops to uncover shady dealings in Swiss banks and the deaths of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, one begins to believe in the transformative effect of Wikileaks on modern journalism. The film manages to evoke the best kind of geopolitical thriller, addressing an era that continues to play out. Unfortunately, its focus deviates and becomes distracted by a series of dramatic subplots – causing significant questions about privacy, transparency and security to go unanswered. The plight of informant Bradley Manning is only briefly touched upon.
The challenge of representing such a significant internet phenomena on film proves difficult. The Fifth Estate spends much time trying to balance Assange’s hero and monster persona, and despite Cumberbatch’s best efforts, ultimately leaves us with little insight into Wikileaks or its founder.
Maybe that’s what Julian would have wanted.
BY TIM ARMITAGE
The Fifth Estate opens in cinemas on Thursday November 14.