Bill Condon’s “The Fifth Estate” is a cautionary tale of the Information Age. Can information, recklessly dumped on the Internet without any vetting, damage or irreparably hurt those directly involved?
Yes is this controversial film’s answer. But this answer will not please everyone. Not everyone on the Internet agrees. And the Internet is fast succumbing to the tyranny of the minority.
Anyone with hacking abilities or pet peeves can play havoc with companies, small businesses nations or others peoples’ lives, deserved or not. That’s the key phrase though, isn’t it? “Deserved or not.” Who gets to decide that?
We all want to get the “bad guys.” But, again, who decides which ones are bad? What is the role of the whistle-blower in contemporary society? This is the quandary Condon’s film investigates.
Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, the website he founded and the focus of this fascinating movie, believe that everything should be “transparent” — except for him. He remains a mystery that this movie tries (but is only partially able) to solve.
This is still, of course, an ongoing story: Assange is currently hiding out in Ecuador’s London embassy. In that sanctuary he is free from arrest and extradition to Sweden (on sexual assault charges) and no doubt eventually to the U.S. where authorities are eager to exact revenge for the dump of thousands of their secret military and diplomatic documents on his site.
Benedict Cumberbatch (“Star Trek Into Darkness,” “12 Years a Slave”) plays Assange as a compelling and persuasive yet erratic personality, driven by personal demons and looking more like a character from a Batman movie with the unruly shock of white hair, an often abrupt physical manner and a self-regard that makes him absolutely certain that he is right about everything.
The film catches him just as he allows fellow hacker and free-Internet ideologue, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), into his confidence as a partner and spokesperson. (The real Assange has sought to portray Berg as a minor employee but most evidence contradicts this.)
Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer (“The West Wing”) base their story on two books, one by Berg, who worked alongside Assange then later became in Assange’s view a “traitor,” and another by journalists from U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, David Leigh and Luke Harding.
The early days of their pairing, this Robin Hood and his single Merry Man, are great fun. Assange and Berg rack up one phenomenal “get” after another: WikiLeaks brings to light a corrupt Swiss bank, extrajudicial murders in Kenya, Church of Scientology manuals and even Sarah Palin through documents leaked by enthusiastic whistle-blowers promised anonymity.
Then in 2010 the biggest trove of secret U.S. files falls into their hands. (This came, it was later learned, from Army Specialist Bradley Manning.) From the war in Afghanistan alone came 91,000 documents. The Iraq War produced over 400,000.
Berg sees a need for real news services to go through the material to extract the pertinent stories and protect sources that may be gravely harmed by their disclosure. But Assange doesn’t believe in this old-school journalism: “Editing reflects bias,” he insists.
Nevertheless, delicate negotiations begin with the Guardian and later New York Times. By now Assange is out of control (according to the movie, you must remember) and eventually pushes everything online despite an agreement with the news organizations to redact countless names.
Is this a reckless information dump by a man accountable to no one or a strike by a free-speech champion?
Like the non-fiction novels that followed Truman Capote’s masterpiece, “In Cold Blood,” Condon uses the techniques of Hollywood moviemaking to get to the heart of the matter. In the first major feature film to explore the WikiLeaks phenomenon — it surely won’t be the last — Condon fashions the film like a journalistic thriller.
“The Fifth Estate” nervously jumps from an early section mostly set in Berlin to locales ranging from Iceland, Belgium and Kenya to the U.K. and U.S. As in a Cold War thriller, streets, airports, cafés and party clubs throng with people, any of whom might be spies or assassins. In one “clandestine” meeting in Cairo, operatives are spotted from America and Russia as well as local Arabs.
This is Condon’s most visually expressive film as he moves the story across a variety of screens as tweets, texts and strings of coding often play off actors’ faces and even glasses. Assange and Berg “chat” in a back room, hunched over open laptops with their messages back and forth projected across the actors’ faces.
Condon evokes the Internet with its vast interconnectivity in a neat visual metaphor — borrowed perhaps from King Vidor’s famous opening office scene in “The Crowd” — where rows upon rows of desks suggest hundreds of tipsters and volunteers for WikiLeaks.
Then in a dramatic twist, when Julian reveals how tiny his operation really is, Daniel learns that all other volunteers he has worked with on the site are actually just Julian filtered through different email accounts. Thus the image of a vast room full of Assanges mischievously hammering away on laptops materializes on screen.
This doesn’t give Daniel pause. As it should. That Julian has fooled the outside world so it might misjudge the might and horsepower of WikiLeaks is one thing. That he for so long has fooled his only associate is another.
Julian’s back story comes slowly as Singer dolls out information at just the right moment to advance his story: The lonely childhood in Australia where his mother became part of a cult (which remains with him in the form of the dyed white hair); the hack into the Pentagon dismissed by a judge as a teenage prank; the increasingly recklessness that feeds the public thirst for knowledge less than his own ego.
Ultimately this is a bromance — a failed one at that— about Julian and Daniel, two hackers who come to see their roles much differently and fall out.
Cumberbatch never completely loses audience empathy for his character no matter how off the rails he may seem. There is passion and integrity in his beliefs and in his speeches promoting those ideals.
While on screen nearly as much as Julian, Daniel is harder to get a handle on, perhaps because the real man is the source of so much of the movie’s story. You see how he changes his mind but not why. It’s a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus without any vision, divine or otherwise.
So this strands that fine German actor Brühl with a somewhat self-contradictory character. This is the film’s major weakness.
Another one is minor characters created to develop a point of view about Assange rather than serve any dramatic purpose. These include Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as State Department functionaries-cum-spies who sweat over a source supposedly endangered by the WikiLeaks document dump who must get smuggled to safety.
No, it’s not easy to find ways to dramatize both the story of Julian Assange or an idea as diaphanous as the flow of information. I suspect this is only the starting point (along with Alex Gibney’s recent doc “We Steal Secrets”) of a long cinematic dialogue on the subject.
Opens: October 18, 2013 (Walt Disney)
Production Company: DreamWork and Reliance Entertainment in association with Participant Media present an Anonymous Content production
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Peter Capaldi, Carice Van Houten, Dan Stevens, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney, Moritz Bleibtreu
Director: Bill Condon
Screenwriter: Josh Singer
Based on books by: Daniel Domscheit-Berg and David Leigh & Luke Harding
Producers: Steve Golin, Michael Sugar
Executive producers: Richard Sharkey, Paul Green, Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King
Director of photography: Tobias Schliessler
Production designer: Mark Tildesley
Music: Carter Burwell
Costume designer: Shay Cunliffe
Editor: Virginia Katz
R rating, 128 minutes