Reviews

Small and Immense, Profound and Simple: 'The Fifth Estate'

Julian Assange's mind becomes a landscape: an office space expands forever, desks and monitors stretch into the distance, each occupied by many, many Julians.


The Fifth Estate

Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruehl, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Peter Capaldi, Moritz Bleibtreu, Carice van Houten, Dan Stevens, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney
Rated: R
Studio: DreamWorks Pictures
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-10-18 (General release)
UK date: 2013-10-11 (General release)
Website
Trailer

"It doesn't matter how small you are, as long as you have faith and a plan of action." Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) asserts this admirable ethos to a rather stunned Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl). Until this point, about a half hour into The Fifth Estate, Julian as suggested that he has squads of volunteers working for him, avid acolytes eager to help him to change the world. Now, Daniel realizes, it's just Julian and him.

Daniel is duly flabbergasted by the news, and even pauses for a moment to wonder whether he should go forward with their world-changing project, that is, WikLleaks, Julian's brainchild enhanced considerably by Daniel's efforts over a few months. When Julian presents the lies he's been telling as part of doing business, a means to an end of greater good, Daniel makes the decision to believe him, to have faith and to help to develop the plan of action, or at least to follow it as Julian lays it out, step by step.

These steps constitute the primary plot of The Fifth Estate, a fictionalized account of how Assange and his ever tiny band of cohorts made Wikileaks into an organization dedicated to exposing institutional secrets, that is, enacting "a whole new form of social justice." The initial concept is at once small and immense, profound and simple, and as WikiLeaks takes it to increasingly larger institutions -- corruptions in Kenya and the Swiss Bank Julius Baer -- its reputation expands. Indeed, the film recounts, when Julius Baer sues WikiLeaks, the resulting publicity is good for the organization (more financial donations, more international media attention) and also complicating for Assange. For, the film contends, Julian is at least as interested in his own reputation and stardom as he is in the exposure of information.

It's this last that becomes an issue for the film's Daniel (the script is based on his book, Inside WikiLeaks, as well as WikiLeaks by David Leigh and Duke Harding), for as Julian's celebrity increases, so it becomes apparent to Daniel that he's something of an egotistical sort, with a sense of himself that is in no way small. This characterization will not be news to most viewers of the film, as this has been the story surrounded the real-life Assange, promulgated by both his enemies and friends, not to mention himself. But for Daniel, in particular, the revelation is not only slow in coming but also something of a moral lesson.

The growing tensions between the men are structured in two ways, one entirely conventional and the other visually tedious. For the first, the film provides Daniel with a new lens thorough which to view his partner -- or, as Julian sees himself, his employer, though he pays his workers nothing -- in the form of a girlfriend. Anke (Alicia Vikander) is encouraging of the project at first, but soon sees that Julian is a needy, self-absorbed, utterly insensitive bully, a point made manifest when Julian shows up one night at Daniel's apartment, and takes no notice of Anke's state of undress or that he's interrupting the couple being a couple, essentially forcing Daniel to choose between them. When Daniel suggests that he must let Julian in because he has "nowhere else to go," Anke announces that she does, and stomps off into the night, receding from Daniel's view down a stairway that provides for echoing footsteps.

The question of just how extraordinary Julian's social competitiveness may be compounded when he meets Daniel's parents (Franziska Walser and Edgar), and against Daniel's first instinct, comes to their home and acts out like a preteen, expressing his own anger about his missing or rejected or otherwise inept parents, and making clear for everyone -- including Daniel -- that perhaps his lofty activist goals don't mean he must behave so cruelly toward others.

The film picks this up in the form or the US government's resentments against WikiLeaks and Assange. Laura Linney plays a State Department diplomat whose personal associate (Alexander Siddig) is endangered by the WikiLeaks release of gunsight footage from a 12 July 2007 Baghdad airstrike, implicating the US in war crimes; that her job is also at stake because of Julian's expanding "plan of action" allows the film to pose another set of questions, as to whether diplomatic careers can lead to "social justice" of any kind.

The Fifth Estate's second method of showing the mens' relationship is less explicitly narrative contrivances, but rather, a visual solution to a narrative dilemma. As so much of their work occurs online, the film faces the usual problem of how to make screens and keystrokes compelling viewing. To solve this puzzle, Julian's mind becomes something of a landscape for the film: as he works, the film shows an office-like space expanding forever, with a sandy floor and a blue sky as ceiling, desks and monitors stretching into the distance, occupied by many, many Julians.

Yes, h's an egomaniac. Yes, he has visions quite beyond those of ordinary folks' capacity. And yes, the movie is awfully corny in these too explanatory metaphorical efforts. The camera swoops and circles Julian at work, with close-ups of his face suggesting his consternation or pleasure. Simultaneously sensational and so banal, these images suggest the film's disappointing lack of imagination in showing the interrelated constraints and immensities of how minds can do their work.

4

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image