The Fifth Estate: stunning performances but it leaves a bad aftertaste

The Fifth Estate should come with a disclaimer. This is not a Julian Assange biopic. It not, as its title would suggest, a film about the so-called Fifth Estate either – even though the term is so ambiguous that you could perhaps argue it applies.

It isn’t even about the rise of WikiLeaks, although it tries to chart the journey of WikiLeaks’ core team (of mostly two: Assange and former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg) from their first meeting at a hacker conference in 2007 to their falling out in 2010, when Domscheit-Berg left the organisation over differences with Assange.

Actually, the idea of irreconcilable differences – the standard reason cited on many a celebrity divorce paper – does come to mind as the film is very much about a bromance gone bad.

The Fifth Estate is based, very loosely I would say, on two books that Julian Assange has called “the first [and] next most toxic.”

At first I thought it was the film’s one single stroke of genius to actually have Cumberbatch’s Assange voice that criticism towards the end but now I am not so sure; it seems more as if the authors, and Dreamworks, were trying to absolve themselves of what feels – throughout – like a lack of diligence, care and even respect, in favour of a rather typical Hollywood plot.

Events have been considerably sexed up, obviously to add suspense to what might otherwise have been a less fast-paced but perhaps more authentic depiction of what happened. Films usually allow for poetic license but The Fifth Estate is displays a frequently irritating lack of effort to do people and events justice.

As the end credits rolled, I walked out of the cinema, feeling that I badly needed to look more closely into Assange’s version of events – and I am very far from being an Assange supporter. Yet the film’s perspective – which is mostly “Daniel’s”– makes Assange’s portrayal feel biased.

It isn’t Benedict Cumberbatch’s fault. Whether or not he took pains to take into consideration Assange’s objections to the film (which Assange verbalized in a long letter to Cumberbatch), his performance is stunning.

Critics’ individual assessments of the film notwithstanding, pretty much everyone agrees that Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Assange as a mercurial and slightly obscure hacker with a serious lack of social skills is brilliant work. He not only nails Assange’s lispy Australian drawl but also carefully avoids bias in his depiction of a character that fluctuates constantly between freedom fighter, egomaniac, paranoid loner, and hero/villain.

Sadly, most reviewers seem to overlook that Daniel Brühl, one of Germany’s most talented actors, effortlessly holds his own next to Cumberbatch, which is no small feat either. Especially when you consider that his character, Daniel Berg, isn’t anywhere near as challenging as Assange or, in fact, Brühl’s other recent major part – that of Niki Lauda in Rush.

The rest of cast is equally impressive, boasting some well-known names from the US, UK and even Germany (Moritz Bleibtreu from Run Lola Run is in it, in case you were wondering where you’d seen his face before).

Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci make appearances as Deputy Undersecratary of State Sarah Shaw and James Boswell, Assistant Secretary of State for Security, respectively.

Peter Capaldi, Dan Stevens and David Thewlis have been cast as Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, deputy editor Ian Katz and investigative journalist Nick Davies.

Peter Capaldi in particular makes for an odd choice though, mostly because the make-up department can only do so much to make him look like Alan Rusbridger. Which he doesn’t.

He continues to look like Peter Capaldi and no amount of mad hair or horn-rimmed glasses can change that. Now, don’t get me wrong; I like the look. I quite fancy seeing that hair on the 12th doctor. It just didn’t quite work for Rusbridger and I think anyone who has ever seen photos or videos with Rusbridger in them will see my point.

Mind you, the same is true of the other journalists. Dan Stevens in particular is far too handsome. Not because Ian Katz is unattractive (which he isn’t) but because Stevens seems too groomed and well-rested for a deputy editor involved in the undoubtedly often nerve-wracking publication process of what has been named “the biggest leak of classified information in history”.

Then again, it is hardly the actors’ fault that they are given little opportunity to flesh out their characters. Both the journalists and the US representatives in the film seem mostly like extras on the side-lines of the unfolding drama between “Julian” and “Daniel”.

The one journalist allowed a few precious moments of serious involvement is Nick Davies – David Thewlis delivering an overlooked gem of a performance – who is seen to broker the deal between WikiLeaks, the Guardian and several other papers besides (i.e. Germany’s Der Spiegel and the New York Times, with the involvement of El Pais and Le Monde completely omitted).

The scene is telling in that it portrays Julian Assange as unwilling to cooperate (accounts of which vary), and in that it is pretty much the only scene that goes into a little bit of detail about the cooperation – and necessary negotiations – between the Fourth and Fifth Estates.

Other brief scenes in the different papers’ offices are more a means of pacing up the story and raising additional obstacles on the increasingly tricky path to publication.

For that, Leigh and Harding’s Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy provides the back story, little details like the information that Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning smuggled sensitive documents out of the US military compound in Iraq on a re-writable CD labelled “Lady Gaga”. The film is more heavily reliant on (and still not all that truthful to) Domscheit-Berg’s Inside Wikileaks.

Given that WikiLeaks, together with the Guardian, der Spiegel, the New York Times, Le Monde and El Pais pulled off a hitherto unprecedented journalistic feat, the film left much to be desired where the journalistic aspect or even the idea of protecting whistleblowers are concerned.

Sure, the start of the film has “Julian” speaking about how it takes one whistleblower to topple an oppressive system, and how WikiLeaks is about providing a platform for the safe and anonymous submission and publication of sensitive documents.0

There are even a few moments that outline the very real danger posed by un-redacted documents (a danger denied by WikiLeaks in their statement on the film) but it is telling that Chelsea Manning herself is mentioned only in passing.

The film’s take on the moral considerations of a project like WikiLeaks barely scratches the surface, and a lack of depth is, in fact, one of its greatest weaknesses throughout.

Perhaps this is why the film needs a sage Nick Davies to “declare Very Important Things” or to explain in so many words why WikiLeaks and the actions of the main characters represent “a new information revolution […] A…. fifth estate”.

Perhaps if the film hadn’t got so lost in its own, slightly post-modern looking, cleverness and symbolism when trying to depict processes like encryption or communication via TOR networks, then it could have paid a little more attention to the nuances of what is an ongoing and extremely complex affair.

As it was, it seemed as if the production team did not quite dare (or care?) to go there. There is little mention (except at the very end) of the pending sexual assault charges against Assange in Sweden.

Instead, Assange is made out as an almost mythical figure who the film does not seem to be able to make up its mind about: is he slightly autistic, traumatized by his childhood, a paranoid and at times extremely vulnerable loner, or is he just a sociopathic arse?

Given that Domscheit-Berg in his book suggests that Assange constantly likes to reinvent himself (something which is mentioned several times in passing in the film) perhaps the film really isn’t quite sure about how to approach him. Then again, it may simply be trying to give viewers the opportunity to make up their own minds, but it takes way too biased an approach in the selection and treatment of its source material for that to really work.

Sadly, The Fifth Estate doesn’t go to great lengths to challenge its audience either. My favourite example of this is that almost all dialogue is in English when actually a lot of the conversations are between German speakers with no English speaker present. It seems that the film doesn’t want to risk over-challenging its audience by making them read subtitles. Even Rush did that!

This is clearly an entertainment piece, aimed at audiences who perhaps are not normally so very interested in, or informed about, the events behind it.

Clearly, this is common practice in Hollywood. However, not even someone very critical of WikiLeaks could entirely discount their reproach that the film is not identified clearly enough as a work of fiction and that, in any case, it depicts only one side of the story.

More than that, it sits uneasily between several chairs; trying to depict the cooperation between WikiLeaks and several of the world’s biggest print media (as detailed in Leigh and Harding’s book), the history of WikiLeaks (which needs to be treated with extreme care), the reaction by the US, the bromance between its two main characters, and parts of Assange’s biography, the film does not quite succeed at any of these endeavours.

More than anything, the The Fifth Estate lacks conviction. Instead, it suffers an overdose of pretentiousness, especially in its imagery. “Daniel” symbolically trashing the WikiLeaks “office” (a space that doesn’t physically exist in the film) or “Julian” standing in a field of ashes after his collaborators have turned against him (the impact of which is overstated) are but two examples of its unimpressive and unoriginal symbolism.

The Fifth Estate may be worthwhile as a political thriller and perhaps even a character study of someone called “Julian Assange”. The problem is that it would have worked just as well if the production team had changed the names and made this into a story about a fictional hacker and his war on secrecy.

As a depiction of recent events, a history of WikiLeaks, or an Assange biopic Bill Coydon’s ambitious film rather disappoints. It may not be trying to be any of these things, but recent news that Hollywood is now looking into making a film about Edward Snowden rather make my skin crawl.

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