Arts Review, Movies

The Fifth Estate

The Fifth Estate featured image

Photo from

Bill Condon, director

Josh Singer, script based on Inside Wikileaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch (Julian Assange), Daniel Bruhl (Daniel Domscheit-Berg), David Thewlis (Nick Davies), Alicia Vikrander (Anke Domscheit-Berg), Laura Linney (Sarah Shaw), Stanley Tucci (James Boswell), Carice van Houten (Birgitta Jonsdottir), Peter Capaldi (Alan Rusbridger), Alexander Siddig (Dr. Tarek Haliseh), Anthony Mackie (Sam Coulson)

The buzz

Love it or hate it—you can’t ignore Wikileaks. The global online organisation has been publishing classified material from governments and big institutions since 2006. It has exposed deadly secrets involving warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, corruption in Kenya human rights abuses in Guantanamo. And that’s just for starters!

Wikileaks’ biggest scandal was the publication in 2010 of a huge amount of US governmental files, leaked to the organisation by Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning. Working with the UK Guardian, the New York Times, Spain’s El Pais, France’s Le Monde and Germany’s Der Spiegel, Wikileaks eventually released over 250,000 US cables, some classified as “top secret.”

The US government was horrified and moved to shut down Wikileaks. Though the organisation continues, Julian Assange, its charismatic leader, is now holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, a virtual prisoner who would be arrested on morals charges if he left diplomatic grounds.

So a big budget film on Assange and Wikileaks is bound to generate a huge amount of media interest. The Fifth Estate, with Britain’s newest star Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange and Oscar winning director and scriptwriter Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Chicago, Gods and Monsters, the last two Twilight films) as the filmmaker has attracted a huge amount of hype.

The genres

Political thriller; bio film; exposé

The premise

German nerd and budding activist Daniel Berg hooks up with Julian Assange at a new media convention. The two start working together on Julian’s budding organisation Wikileaks. After exposing the corrupt activities of a Swiss bank, Daniel dedicates himself to Wikileaks although he is also falling in love with Anke, a smart and savvy woman he met at work.

Assange pops in and out of Daniel’s life, putting his relationship with Anke at risk. But working on Wikileaks is a huge incentive for Daniel, who is interested in exposing corruption worldwide. At first, collaborating with Assange is intoxicating as the two leak secrets taking place in Iraq, Kenya and Afghanistan with bewildering frequency.

But Daniel soon realises that Wikileaks is almost entirely made up of Julian, himself and a small selected band of people that Assange trusts. Daniel tries to prop up with the organisation with some of his most competent hacker friends but Julian mistrusts anyone he doesn’t recruit.

Then, the huge Cablegate leak comes their way. While mid-level diplomats like Sarah Shaw and James Boswell watch in horror, Wikileaks threatens to blow up the old codes of diplomatic and espionage practice. With the assistance of the UK Guardian in particular, Wikileaks finds itself poised to expose its latest target—the US government.

But what will happen to Berg and Assange if that happens? Will this latest—and massive—Wikileak expose innocent people to danger?

The performances

Lots of old pros are on hand in this latest Bill Condon thriller: David Thewlis and Peter Capaldi as Guardian editors; Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as mid-level American diplomats and “spooks;” and Alexander Siddig as Libyan doctor and American informant. They’re all fine, as expected.

Daniel Bruhl is compelling as Berg, the young German activist, but the film is really dominated by one performer: Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s brilliant as Assange—effortlessly charismatic, manipulative, charming, eloquent but also narcissistic and paranoid. Cumberbatch is made up to be a dead ringer for Assange—and he inhabits his role perfectly.

The creative team

The Wikileaks story is massive and complicated. In order to do the story—and Assange—justice, director Bill Condon and scriptwriter Josh Singer used two books, a Guardian journalistic “quickie” and a bio by Daniel Domscheit-Berg as their source materials. Assange has been up in arms over this approach and he has denounced the film worldwide.

While his reaction is likely over-the-top, it’s fair to say that The Fifth Estate only tells one version of the Wikileaks saga. Happily, the filmmakers allow Cumberbatch’s Assange the chance to refute the film in a final scene. It’s a smart idea, but does it rescue the film’s intellectual integrity?

The skinny

The Fifth Estate is a smart political thriller that features a brilliant leading performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. Unfortunately, the film isn’t completely successful in catching either the iconic Assange or his organisation. It may be impossible to make the perfect Wikileaks film—but that’s what Condon and company set out to do. Judging by that standard, The Fifth Estate isn’t a complete success. But it’s an intelligent thriller that merits attention. On the whole, I can only praise the filmmakers for their skillful attempt at telling an amazing—and very contemporary—story.

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