'The Fifth Estate' a bland, shallow telling of WikiLeaks story
Published: Friday, October 18, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 17, 2013 at 4:23 p.m.
The fundamental problem with “The Fifth Estate” is one of perspective.
'The Fifth Estate'
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Carice Van Houten, Alicia Vikander
There's no denying that WikiLeaks has had a massive impact on world events. Between its own leaks of sensitive documents and those it likely inspired, like Edward Snowden's disclosure of NSA programs, the public has learned a great deal about the darker corners of the war on terror and how that war is being fought.
Unfortunately, “The Fifth Estate” isn't really interested in any of that. The movie is based on a book by WikiLeaks insider Daniel Berg, who (at least as he tells it) helped Julian Assange make WikiLeaks into a global force and built its key infrastructure in the early goings. Obviously someone who helped build WikiLeaks isn't going to be very critical of its overall mission. So, despite the marketing team's insistence that it wants the audience to judge Assange, the movie has already made up its mind. The result is a movie that doesn't have much going for it other than “controversy.”
After a montage illustrating all of the ways people have communicated with each other throughout history — from hieroglyphics to radio to smartphones — the movie opens on the night in July 2010 that The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel published “The War Logs,” a set of stories based on documents leaked by WikiLeaks spelling out all sorts of nasty details about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The movie then makes its first misstep. After the flurry of activity at the newspapers, it cuts to Berg (Daniel Bruhl) at home on his computer, rapidly refreshing his browser to see that the stories have been published. After he sees the stories have gone live, Berg tries to reach Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to no avail while Assange's face remains obscured. This scene says it all, albeit indirectly: This movie isn't about Assange and WikiLeaks, it's about Assange and Berg.
From here the movie goes into flashback mode, as we see how Assange and Berg became confidants (though never how they actually first met) and began building up WikiLeaks. Assange pitches himself from the get-go as a social revolutionary making it easier for whistleblowers to expose corruption, and Berg is an eager disciple, following Assange's lead like a happy puppy. We see Berg and Assange leak documents showing tax fraud at a Swiss bank, political corruption in Kenya, and a host of other crimes. The message is clear: These guys are heroes taking down the powerful.
As Assange and Berg, Cumberbatch and Bruhl do the best they can given the material they're working with. Cumberbatch certainly looks the part, and he cobbles together an interesting set of traits and tics, but the script doesn't give him a fully realized character to embody, so it's all for naught. Bruhl, last seen giving an incredible performance as Formula 1 driver Niki Lauda in “Rush,” is completely shortchanged here and spends the entire time being Assange's whipping boy, alternating between wide-eyed adoration and dejection.
What conflict and drama there is to be had in “The Fifth Estate” boils down to Assange being a jerk to Berg and disagreements over their methods, though never their core objective. But we already know Assange is a jerk from his self-congratulatory public appearances, and quite frankly the fact that he treated his associates like garbage just doesn't compare to the critical questions surrounding WikiLeaks' actions. Furthermore, the movie's failure to address the charges of sexual assault against Assange until literally the last minute is a glaring oversight.
The movie does find a measure of interesting material in the third act when, after all of the flashbacks, the action finally shifts to the leak of the war logs. But it's all undercut by the fundamental problem of perspective and the movie's asinine explanation that Assange was motivated by some childhood trauma (he was apparently abused when he was young, and his family was part of a cult in Australia). To be clear, the problem with “The Fifth Estate” isn't that it views Assange as a hero, albeit a flawed one; it's that that shallow viewpoint is the only one it offers.