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The Fifth Estate

The truth will out

The Fifth Estate

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, by virtue of the monumental impact his organization has had on our understanding of world affairs, is subject to dozens of competing narratives, delivered on every communications platform available to those who would have us know the man and his project as they see him. The Fifth Estate, directed by Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls, two Twilight movies), is the first major motion picture fictionalization of an Assange story, and it’s a thoroughly entertaining thriller that hangs on a brilliant impersonation of Assange by its star, Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness and the TV series Sherlock). As such, it is likely to become a dominant part, if not the dominant part, of the popular understanding of a watershed historical episode and the real people caught up in it for some time to come, in the same manner as Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Abraham Lincoln or Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman’s portrayals of Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men.

This is certainly among the reasons that Assange protested the movie without seeing it, and tried to convince Cumberbatch not to take the role. (In answer to The Fifth Estate, WikiLeaks has just released a documentary, Mediastan: A WikiLeaks Road Movie, about the 2011 release of hundreds of thousands of secret US government cables to media outlets around the world, an event which serves as a climax to Condon’s film.) Assange is certainly displeased that the story is told through the lens of his former WikiLeaks collaborator, Daniel Berg, who either resigned or was canned by Assange in the wake of that mammoth release of secret documents, depending on whose narrative you accept, then wrote a somewhat disparaging book about the experience.

Played by Daniel Brühl, in The Fifth Estate Berg serves as Assange’s conscience—the implication being that Assange’s own conscience is somehow inadequate, or damaged by his odd childhood, eclipsed by megalomania and dedication to his mission. Berg also provides Condon and his screenwriters a vehicle for injecting into the story narrative elements that a film dramatization requires: a love interest, whom Berg forsakes in favor of his allegiance to Assange and then returns to later, when he becomes disillusioned; the personality conflict between Berg and Assange that is given equal standing in the film’s narrative with the conflict between WikiLeaks and the governments it antagonizes; and a sympathetic character in whom audience members can invest, who will exit the narrative changed, humbled, and ultimately more human-seeming than the mysterious Assange, whose weird affect and egotism remain uncompromised monoliths, despite (and perhaps because of) oblique references to the childhood trauma meant to serve as shorthand explanations for his oddness.

There are few truly useful and trustworthy insights here. Indeed, what are intended to seem like efforts to explain how and why WikiLeaks does what it does ultimately surround these questions with greater mystery—and this, too, is a necessary element of fiction, particularly of film thrillers. For example, rather than explain clearly how WikiLeaks code-writers seek to protect the anonymity of the site’s sources, Cumberbatch’s Assange gives a breathless and utterly unelucidating brief on the matter, accompanied by an appealing but equally unhelpful animated graphic. This keeps the pace of the movie tight, but you won’t walk out of the theater knowing much more than you did walking in.

Which is not to say this is a bad movie. The performances, especially Cumberbatch’s, are terrific across the board. (Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney, offering the US state department prespective on WikiLeaks, provide especially enjoyable scene.) The narrative moves quickly but always coherently. Condon tells a very good story very well. But it’s ultimately just that: a piece of storytelling, whose obligation to entertain trumps its obligation to inform. It is certainly a terrific peice of entertainment. Look elsewhere to be informed.

Watch the trailer for The Fifth Estate

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