The Fifth Estate

Art & Culture

I would say there is half a good film here, which is why it gets half a score. There is a strong story, and a terrific central performance, on the one hand; one the other hand, there’s a lot of phoney drama, a confused script, and an attempt to make the whole thing cybercool – which fails.

It’s impossible to talk about the film without comparison to The Social Network, David Fincher’s film about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. In both cases, an idealistic young man is drawn by a charismatic and inventive genius who is also manipulative, egocentric and disloyal – maybe even borderline autistic. In both cases, the two men build something enormous based on new media, before the idealist sidekick gets dumped – then writes a book on which the film is based.

Setting aside the accuracy of either of theses stories – about which I cannot comment – The Social Network  is a gripping and plausible film; The Fifth Estate  is not. Just as Facebook was the brain child of Zuckerberg, Wikileaks was the brain child of Julian Assange, an Australian man with a complex background, who began hacking at an early age. In 2007, he met Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a German technology activist, whose account of his time with Assange is the basis for this film – and one which Assange himself says is inaccurate.

Since it’s not possible to know who’s right, I shall restrict myself to describing what the film shows. Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) presents Wikileaks to Berg (Daniel Bruhl) as a complex organisation, when in fact it turns out to consist only of him – and then Daniel. Nonetheless, they begin to publish documents which have been leaked to them by anonymous sources who they protect. They are out to expose the rich, the corrupt, the powerful and the unjust. It’s a moral crusade, which Berg is happy to embrace wholeheartedly, at the expense of his relationship with Anke (Alicia Vikander). The Guardian, in the shape of Nick Davies (David Thewlis) and Alan Rusbridger (Peter Capaldi) get drawn in, and then there is a kind of parallel story in the USA where career diplomats Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci are trying to deal with the ness that the leaks create.

It all comes to a head when the massive Manning leaks explode across the world’s media, and – in the central conflict of the film – Assange refuses to redact (i.e. remove) any information that might endanger people. But by then, even Berg has realised that Assange is a manipulative and untrustworthy human being, whatever his value as a crusader against injustice, and we know it’s all going to end in tears, or at least in the Ecuadorian embassy.

As I say, there’s no point in me getting involved in the argument about the accuracy of the film and its portrayal of Assange. It may well be an exaggeration of his character, just as Berg is portrayed as whiter than white, and I can understand why the real person does not like to see his fictional self on screen – who would? My problem with the film is what exactly we’re meant to be watching. On the one hand it’s a bromance gone wrong; it’s also meant to be a modern day All The President’s Men, then there’s the political paranoia element; and finally, we have a story about the emergence of a new medium which is replacing print journalism, with a consequence that is as yet unclear. Oh yes, and it’s also a portrait of a self-centred and duplicitous pain in the arse.

Which is way too much for one film to manage. Another problem is that the script writer and the director are so worried about it not being sexy enough that they try to make it cooler, and only succeed in making it duller. It is impossible to make people tapping on keyboards fun to watch. It never has been and never will be – so don’t try. This film tries – and fails miserably. Next problem; don’t try and create hollow danger when there is none. Throughout the film, there are suggestions that Assange and/or Berg are being followed – but it never amounts to anything. There’s also a US source in Libya whose life (it is suggested) is on the liner, resulting in a bogus escape which is cheesy and superfluous.

It’s simple. You do the same as Social Network and make the film about the two main characters, and the personality clash between the two men, one of whom who is magnetic precisely because of the very character flaws that will eventually drive them apart. It is an innate dynamic between the leader and the follower that the leader wants to be worshipped, and the follower wants to worship; then either the leader gets tired and wants a new worshipper; or the follower realises that the leader has feet of clay, and withdraws his worship. You don’t need all the rest, and this film would benefit enormously by being stripped back to its core elements and dumping all the excess baggage.

One final note. Whether or not Assange is the way he is portrayed, Cumberbatch gives a terrific performance as a man with a mission, which is part altruistic, part egotistic, and you can’t have one without the other. Neither hero nor villain, he’s complex, dangerous and very believable.


Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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