The Fifth Estate mostly feels like a story seen and told from the viewpoint of Domscheit Berg (Journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding’s book WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy (2011) is also cited in the credits.) Assange is the control freak who needs to be stopped and Berg the good guy who puts an end to Assange’s craziness by destroying data. Even as it suggests the need to be responsible with journalism, one can’t help but wonder about the secret documents lost in process which could have exposed more dirty laundry of those in power.
The WikiLeaks story doesn’t just travel around the world but even across information platforms. The film features a variety of elements to tell his story. There is real footage such as clippings from the print media with such newspapers as The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Speigel leading the way, footage from news channels and the infamous video which highlighted the atrocities of the US force against Iraq civilians. On the fictional front, there are encrypted computer chats, SMSes, mobile conversations, press conferences and more. But he struggles to keep the viewers engrossed in the fast-developing events.
There are reasons why Julian Assange, who currently has got asylum in Ecuador’s embassy in London, doesn’t want you to see the documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, and director Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate. Both films present the website’s founder and editor-in-chief as a flawed genius. The Fifth Estate is not kind to its protagonist. It celebrates him as a game changer in the world of journalism and then ceremoniously brings him down. At one point in the film, the girlfriend of one of Assange’s former collaborators, Daniel Berg, whose book is credited as one of the sources for the script, calls Assange a “manipulative asshole” and a “mad prophet”.
Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is suspicious, narcissistic, hardworking and so obsessed about his pursuit to make the hidden truths accessible to the public that he often blurs the line between right and wrong. A one-man army he gets a partner for his ambitious project in Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl), a German technology expert who starts off as being an employee in awe of his boss. As the film chronicles the website’s rise and growing popularity, it also charts the subsequent breakdown of Assange and Domscheit-Berg’s partnership as they clash over the objectives and morals of WikiLeaks. Domscheit-Berg, viewers are told, cares about the repercussions of WikiLeaks actions such as the significance to redact the names of the sources in the Afghanistan War logs and thereby their lives; Assange doesn’t. “WikiLeaks doesn’t edit,” he says. For him, it’s important to get the disconcerting and damaging reality out quickly and make headlines.
Cumberbatch revels in playing the anti-hero, which reminded us of his performance in Star Trek: Into Darkness. As the less colourful character of the two, Bruhl, much like in Rush, manages to make his presence felt. In a nifty move in the end, the film shows Cumberbatch’s Assange comment on the two films (mentioned in the first paragraph), made on him. It’s a scene which reveals most about Assange. But the most telling statement, and the one that lingers most, comes from the Guardian journalist Nick Davies (played by David Thewlis). “He is the head of a huge media who is accountable to no one. We put him there.”
Comparisons with David Fincher’s The Social Network are inevitable. The latter tells the story of Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, another maverick from the world of internet albeit one who is smarter, richer and free. Interestingly, like Assange, Zuckerberg too distanced himself from the film. Like that film, The Fifth Estate also has a partnership-friendship gone sour. Berg is the Eduardo Saverin of the saga, who played an instrumental role in the success of WikiLeaks. But The Fifth Estate falls short in highlighting the drama. The story arc involving the US government officials, which includes a cast of known actors like Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, seems abrupt and incomplete.