With Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, David Thewlis, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci. Written by Josh Singer. Directed by Bill Condon. Rated R for language and some violence. 128 minutes.
In the thirty years since “War Games,” filmmakers have not been able to solve the problem of making movies revolving around people and their personal computers. No matter how intense they look, no matter how fast they hit the keyboard, typing away is just not that dramatically interesting. Add THE FIFTH ESTATE to this year’s “Jobs” as another movie in which trying to tell the “true story” (no matter how adapted for the screen) proves to be the wrong approach.
The true story here is inherently interesting and ripped from the headlines. Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) founded Wikileaks with two goals in mind: to reveal the secrets of corrupt governments and institutions and to protect the identity of the whistleblowers who provide the information he posts on his website. Early on he brings in Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) to do fact-checking and handle the growing demands on Wikileaks. This includes vastly increasing the number of computer servers providing access to the site and interacting with the media to get the word out.
As with the recent “Jobs,” we discover that the man at the center of it is both brilliant and egotistical, charismatic and loathe to share credit. In many ways the dramatic arc of the story is how Domscheit-Berg becomes disillusioned with Assange, who always claimed to have “hundreds” of volunteers but, in fact, kept very close control of everything himself. Assange is shown to be a man with secrets of his own who, paradoxically, devotes his life to revealing the secrets of others.
Much of the film is devoted to what American viewers will consider “backstory” as it shows the lead-up to Wikileaks’ biggest coup, the release of hundreds of thousands of pages of American military and diplomatic documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The movie brings out a key issue beyond that of releasing classified documents: Assange has no interest in removing the names of informants and clandestine allies, putting their lives at risk. However the movie doesn’t really help us with the debate. Were lives put at risk? The movie shows one Libyan official (Alexander Siddig) who may have been in danger, but Assange claims no proof of such threats has ever been made public. Two State Department officials (Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci) ruefully try to contain the potential damage, but seem almost bemused at the chaos Wikileaks has caused.
So the film comes down to the conflict between Assange and Domscheit-Berg. As portrayed by Cumberbatch, Assange is arrogant, driven to make a positive difference in the world, but not able to understand anyone else’s point of view. Domscheit-Berg (who authored one of the two books that are sources for the film) is portrayed as a far more sympathetic figure, trying to get Assange in touch with his humanity while aiding the cause. It’s a nice performance by Daniel Brühl who has already impressed this fall in a very different role as race car driver Niki Lauda in “Rush.”
Today Assange has been given asylum in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, facing criminal charges if he emerges. The profound changes of the Internet age on privacy––not only for individuals but for governments and business––remain a hot topic. “The Fifth Estate,” however, makes it as riveting as a “tweet” on Twitter. It might grab your attention for the moment but it has no staying power.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.