The Fifth Estate

the fifth estate

Stepping into the movie theatre last night to watch The Fifth Estate, the story of WikiLeaks, I was kind of dreading it. The film had first caught my eye while it was screening at TIFF, mostly because Benedict Cumberbatch is the lead, playing Julian Assange. Well, I didn’t make it out to TIFF, so I decided, why not see it in theatres? Reading reviews, the answer to that question seemed to be endless—it’s boring, flat, forced, and, above all, it’s just flat-out biased, according to the real Julian Assange.

In January, Assange posted a letter on WikiLeaks that was addressed to Benedict Cumberbatch, denying him a meeting and noting that the film was based on the “two most discredited books on the market.” He was nice enough to Cumberbatch, saying that he respects him and his body of work, but he warns him against playing the role that would inevitably be overwhelmingly biased and negative.

The simple truth: Assange wasn’t wrong—but the reviews were. I went into that theatre preparing myself for a two-hour snoozefest, but I came out wanting to know more. I can’t attest to the accuracy of the events portrayed in the movie. (Assange claimed the film would “resurrect and amplify defamatory stories which were long ago shown to be false.”) I have never followed the WikiLeaks story all that closely, so maybe this contributed to my interest in the plot and the portrayal of the characters. It’s interesting to note that in a memo posted to WikiLeaks, the majority of the characters either never existed, or never worked closely with Assange, including Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Bruhl in the film), who was a major character in the film.

Due to the nature of the story, and the need for Hollywood to have some sort of monumental conclusion, Daniel’s hacking of the WikiLeaks servers is played up—and it falls short. The film tries to force this event beyond what it was, and I don’t think that was necessary. Don’t get me wrong: finding a suitable “end” to the story of an organization that still exists and is playing an active role in the media information community is tricky. But I don’t think it needs an explosive ending. Then again, this seems to play into the film’s rather polarized depiction of Berg and Assange.

Bendict Cumberbatch delivers a great performance—with what he was given. The majority of the character’s screen time just builds him up to be a manipulative, arrogant, deceitful asshole. The “interview” scene at the end is likely meant to serve as a one-minute unbiased clip of Assange, but the core 120 minutes of the film clearly present a one-dimensional Assange—whom you should dislike—and Berg—whom you should like. WikiLeaks, at its very core, exists in a moral grey area—the film, however, makes it black and white.

Overall, I wouldn’t label The Fifth Estate as a thriller—it’s definitely a drama, in spite of its attempts at a shocking ending. The Fifth Estate is one of those strange films that becomes interesting when you follow the story around it—that is, the controversial depiction of the person and the events, along with the statements of its falsities. It’s the larger narrative surrounding the film that really lends it depth and allure. The Fifth Estate isn’t flat when you look at the bigger picture.


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