Friday, October 18, 2013

The Fifth Estate

Review by Pamela Zoslov

While preparing to play Julian Assange in THE FIFTH ESTATE, actor Benedict Cumberbatch wrote to Assange in hopes of meeting him. The Wikilieaks founder replied politely, writing that while he is “fond” of Cumberbatch's work, he does not approve of the film, an early script of which he had read. “I believe you are a good person, but I do not believe that this film is a good film,” Assange wrote. “I know the film intends to depict me and my work in a negative light. I believe it will distort events and subtract from public understanding. It does not seek to simplify, clarify or distill the truth, but rather it seeks to bury it. It will resurrect and amplify defamatory stories which were long ago shown to be false.”

The biggest problem with the film is not its skewed agenda, though there are certainly issues with that, but that it's dramatically inert. After a strong start, the narrative rapidly runs out of fuel and ends with a shrug, embracing no strong point of view about Assange, whistleblowing, the U.S. government, war, journalism, or anything. This equivocation is embodied in the movie's ad poster, featuring Cumberbatch-as-Assange's face and the slogan “Hero or Traitor? You decide.” Never mind that Assange, an Australian citizen, could not be a “traitor” to the United States; that fact hasn't stopped certain grandstanding politicians (e.g. Congressman Mike Rogers) and commentators (e.g. Glenn Beck and Newt Gingrich) from calling for his prosecution and/or execution. (Assange currently resides at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has been living since June 2012 to avoid extradition for alleged sex offenses in Sweden. He fears prosecution by the U.S for political “crimes.”)

Telling stories about the Internet seems to confound Hollywood filmmakers. Where's the drama in creating a website? The movies rely on lots of flashy animated computer graphics to compensate for a certain lack of drama in a story about keyboards and code. THE FIFTH ESTATE, directed by Bill Condon, follows the blueprint of the Facebook-founding movie THE SOCIAL NETWORK, finding its drama in the pedestrian conflict between a couple of website founders, in this case Assange and Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl).

Wikileaks is not Facebook, though. Facebook was devised by Mark Zuckerberg as a way for college dudes to meet girls, and only latterly became a tool for social and political organizing (not to mention the sharing of funny cat pictures). Wikileaks was always a serious endeavor, created by Assange, a legendarily smart and "ethical" hacker,  to expose malfeasance and topple tyrants, while protecting the whistleblowers who provide the crucial data.

The story of Wikileaks raises interesting and important issues, some of which are glancingly addressed by the movie. The prosecution of Private Bradley Manning (now Chelsea Manning) for leaking thousands of classified documents, possibly the most dramatic component of the real-life Wikileaks story, is dispensed with in a couple of brief mentions, but considerable time is spent on the scrambling of U.S. State Department officials to deal with the leak of embarrassing diplomatic cables. The movie also tries to address the jealous competition between new and old media, the latter embodied here by Britain's Guardian and its journalist Nick Davies (David Thewlis) and The New York Times, whose then-editor Bill Keller disparaged Assange after the paper benefited from Wikileaks' revelations. (The movie shows Assange reacting indignantly to Keller's profile portraying him as slovenly and wearing dirty socks.) But the narrative constructed by screenwriter Josh Singer, based on two Wikileaks "insider" memoirs, quickly becomes dull, plodding along with no particular destination. Singer  hasn't found a way to make the material sing, or make this techno-thriller thrilling.

The first of several planned Wikileaks movies, the film is based on two books, one a memoir by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a German technology activist who, under the pseudonym Daniel Schmitt, worked with Assange and was Wikileaks' spokesman before the two split acrimoniously. We see Assange and Wikileaks primarily through the bespectacled eyes of Domscheit-Berg, here called Berg (Daniel Brühl), who initially admires the Australian-born Assange and his commitment to the power of information to conquer corruption and change the world. “Man is least himself when he talks with his own person,” Assange says. “But if you give him a mask, he will tell you the truth...if we could find one moral man, one whistle-blower, someone willing to expose those secrets, that man can topple the most powerful and most repressive of regimes.”

As Berg becomes more enmeshed with Wikileaks, he discovers that the “hundreds of volunteers” who make up its staff are, in reality, just himself and Assange; the illusion is illustrated by a cavernous office with rows of desks occupied by only the two men. The job, and the famously eccentric, prickly Assange, begin to devour Berg's life, interrupting his legitimate, paid computer work and, more importantly, his lovemaking with girlfriend Anke (Alicia Vikander). This is Domscheit-Berg's memoir, so he gets to be a hero: when Wikileaks publishes the Iraq War Logs and diplomatic cables, Berg fears that Assange — who has not carefully redacted all names in the documents — is endangering lives. He and a fellow hacker try to save the day by sabotaging Wikileaks' website.  No mention is made of the corporate disruption of Wikileaks' fundraising or the Obama Administration's persecution of Wikileaks.

The film's Assange, who makes a number of reasonable speeches about the importance of truth-telling and free information, quickly devolves into megalomaniac and freak, an impression exacerbated by Cumberbatch's elongated face, made more bizarre by an albino-white wig and invisible eyebrows that make him look like Andy Warhol's son. (The real Assange looks considerably more normal.) No fewer than four references are made to Assange's white hair, culminating in Berg's “revelation” that Assange dyes his hair for cryptic reasons related to his childhood. I do not know if this is true, but what of it?

Of all the truths that were revealed by Manning and Wikileaks, none shocks the conscience as much as the “Collateral Murder” video that shows U.S soldiers in an Apache helicopter in Iraq gunning down civilians, including children and two Reuters journalists, then gleefully proclaiming, “Look at all them dead bastards.” There may be no more vivid true-life illustration of the barbarity of war. The release of the video, along with a lengthy list of other Wikileaks revelations, turned the tide toward ending the war in Iraq — actually saving lives, rather than jeopardizing them, as government officials had bewailed. One thing the movie does right is to spend some time on “Collateral Murder,” showing portions of the video as Cumberbatch-as-Assange narrates in his somber baritone (an impressive approximation of Assange's voice). The very long list of Manning and Wikileaks' important revelations is here.

That really is the essence of the Wikileaks controversy — governments, particularly the U.S. government, protecting themselves from  revelations about torture, murder and other war crimes. The movie doesn't mention the Obama Administration's unprecedented War on Whistleblowers –— Edward Snowden being only the latest in a string of principled leakers prosecuted or threatened with prosecution under the Espionage Act — but aims for “balance” by showing the problems faced by U.S. State Department officials as they engage in furious damage control. Thus we are introduced to Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney), a mid-level diplomat worried about the risk to her Libyan friend and covert source, and about the leaking of embarrassing comments in the “Cablegate” leak. Shaw disparages Manning to her colleague James Boswell (Stanley Tucci, looking over his spectacles as he does in every movie) in language remarkable for being at once elitist, callous and homophobic: “A private with a history of mental problems...and a Lady Gaga CD!” (Manning's purloined documents were stored on a disc labeled “Lady Gaga.”) She also disses Assange, whose presumably humble origins she contrasts with her own privileged background (“two advanced degrees!”). Are we meant to sympathize?

THE FIFTH ESTATE has dazzling graphics, an edgy techno-inspired score by Carter Burwell, and some good acting. But, while it's hardly the savage attack Assange feared, it is dullish, wishy-washy, and in some ways misleading. With stronger writing and a more purposeful narrative, it could have been an exciting and revelatory experience.    2 1/2 out of 4 stars.


  1. I wanted to see this but now I'm not so sure, it doesn't sound great tbh!

  2. It seems the "take no moral stance" approach to film making is pretty much standard procedure in Hollywood these days. Every time I see it happen, I can't help but be reminded of when I saw Crispin Glover speak at the Cinematheque, and he talked about how modern Hollywood movies are intentionally amoral so as not to offend anyone.

  3. I'd like to know Pam's opinion of Alex Gibney's WE STEAL SECRETS documentary on this subject that apparently played the Cedar Lee for a moment or two. Now released to DVD via Universal...I would also like a Guy Fawkes/"Anonymous" mask to wear around in social situations, but can't figure out how to buy a good one without a Chinese slave factory getting all the money.


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