Courting Controversy? Or Not? Bill Condon’s ‘The Fifth Estate’

WikiLeaks and Julian Assange changed our world. Yet the story put on film, The Fifth Estate, is not nearly controversial enough.

Hero. Genius. Traitor. Manipulator. Thus director Bill Condon contradictorily describes Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate to encourage viewers to make up their own minds about the WikiLeaks founder. “If you want the truth, you have to seek it out for yourself,” Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) says directly to the camera in the closing scene. “It’s all about you,” he motivates the audience, but then smiles, “and a little bit about me, too.” This line tells a lot about Condon’s approach to the story as both an attempt at analyzing the many legal and social issues that arose when WikiLeaks went live and presenting a closer look inside the world of Julian Assange.

On the surface, The Fifth Estate begins like a typical biopic detailing Aussie hacker Julian Assange and his brainchild, WikiLeaks. The original one-man operation grows exponentially with the later assistance of Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl), a follower who thinks he has become Assange’s partner as WikiLeaks successfully publishes corporate or government secrets. Although Assange claims, even to loyal idealist Berg, that WikiLeaks has hundreds of volunteers, the reality is that the site is then staffed only by two — the first of many manipulative stretches of the truth that Assange tells Berg as they crisscross Europe to establish Wikileaks.

Assange alternates between charismatic and rude, inspirational and conspiratorial, altruistic and egomaniacal. Unfortunately, he also becomes a bit boring because he primarily sits and types, speaks before crowds at conventions and press conferences, and occasionally dashes to or from cafes or airports. The rise of WikiLeaks and Assange is a wonderful story to follow in the news, but it loses momentum in this translation to the screen.

The Assange story is, however, important to tell. In the process of becoming famous, he promotes a new brand of Internet “journalism” based on the premise that large, powerful entities’ actions and communication should be transparent. Assange promises his followers “privacy for the individual, transparency for institutions, and your personal safety as a whistleblower guaranteed through anonymity.” His association with traditional journalists seeking to publish leaked information, once verified and preferably redacted to protect informers or potential collateral victims, is more volatile.

The film’s pace picks up when WikiLeaks publishes Afghan and Iraq war logs and U.S. State Department cables, but the plot also becomes more fragmented as it deals with the disintegrating Assange-Berg relationship, Berg’s romance, and the backstory of a State Department informant outed by the leaks. If Assange comes across as increasingly self-interested and manipulative, the film also shows these traits among State Department diplomats who gloss over WikiLeaks’ “Collateral Murder” video as a complex situation that outsiders simply cannot understand. The final scene turns meta when Cumberbatch-as-Assange complains about the “anti-WikiLeaks movie” based on the two “worst books” about him, letting movie Assange have the final word about, ironically, the film in which he is currently starring.

Although marketed mostly as an Assange biopic (although even the professionals in the behind-the-scenes segments describe the film’s purpose in multiple ways), Condon’s film carefully balances perspectives representing the US government, as told through the Washington insider stories of Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney) and James Boswell (Stanley Tucci), with biographical information about WikiLeaks’ founder, whose backstory is told primarily during the film’s first half. When Assange says that “when you seek to protect, there are those who would seek to destroy,” his line could just as easily have been said by someone in Washington. By emphasizing both sides reacting to a highly controversial website, Condon shows how neither side is working purely for “the greater good”.

Audiences may have wished that Condon had taken a controversial stand, even if it is one with which they disagree. The Fifth Estate would not have needed to be overtly prejudicial, but it, like the newspapers that supported WikiLeaks in 2010, might have illustrated a single perspective in greater depth, rather than choosing to appear neutral by showing two distinctly oppositional viewpoints. Perhaps that balancing act is one reason why this film did not do as well as expected at the box office during its opening weekend. (The Huffington Post labeled the film a “flop” with the year’s worst opening weekend, but Box Office Mojo lists it as #160 out of 677 films released in 2013, ranked by US domestic gross.)

Nevertheless, Condon makes some useful points about the changing face of journalism in light of the Internet. When WikiLeaks published more than 75,000 US military papers, called the Afghan War Diary, in July 2010, the world not only noticed but appreciably changed in light of the largest leak of government information in history. How easily Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning could supply confidential information to WikiLeaks is but one fact the director underscores in The Fifth Estate. In the wake of WikiLeaks, the Information Age no longer seemed quite so innocent to the global public. Assange suddenly became a name important, he would say, in the cause of social justice, although the corporate and government entities whose information was leaked consider him an international traitor setting a dangerous precedent. Assange, however, had the legitimacy of The Guardian, The New York Times, and Der Spiegel behind him; these three reputable newspapers together published the Afghanistan War Logs.

Controversy Surrounding the Film

By autumn 2013, WikiLeaks’ scandals had become just more troubling events in recent history that seemingly faded from public consciousness (and conscience) when they no longer made daily headlines. As the film’s designers explain in The Fifth Estate DVD/Blu-ray set’s features, technology also has significantly changed since 2007, when the movie’s WikiLeaks story begins, and even 2010-style chats and instant messages look different than they did when Assange first made news. The movie had to portray the “old” technology of 2007-2010, which makes the subversive nature of WikiLeaks seem digitally dated. By the time The Fifth Estate had been filmed and was ready for its big debut as the gala opening film at the Toronto International Film Festival, WikiLeaks did not seem to be quite the cutting-edge website it had been so recently.

News media, however, rediscovered the significance of whistleblowing during summer 2013. Manning’s sentencing was still making headlines, as was the plight of NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, when The Fifth Estate went into wide release in autumn. The media interest in these high-profile stories provided the film with free publicity by reminding audiences that whistleblowing — and WikiLeaks — is still relevant, even if its founder has been living since 2012 in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, which granted him asylum from extradition to face charges in Sweden.

The real Assange kept the film in the news, too, not only around its much-anticipated release date, but while the film was being made in 2012. He leaked an early version of the script and frequently complained to the media that the film would be a highly biased account of the creation of WikiLeaks and some of its greatest successes. Newspapers published the story that actor Cumberbatch sought to meet with the WikiLeaks founder, who refused to see him but briefly corresponded via email. Closer to the film’s release date, Assange published a letter he had written to Cumberbatch, begging the actor not to take the role. Such communiques with the media only served to keep Assange and the film in the spotlight.

With all this controversy surrounding the film, the release of the DVD/Blu-ray set on 28 January seems rather quiet. The issues Condon introduces, while often muddled within the context of the film, are nonetheless crucial to our understanding of the Information Age and our role, individually and collectively, as a well-informed, critically analytical public. This message, unfortunately, does not always equate to riveting entertainment. The performances are individually excellent, but the story itself is difficult to tell cinematically.

The Problems of Getting to Know Julian

During the opening credits, Condon provides a brief multimedia history of journalism with headlines, sound bites, and television footage highlighting important news stories of years past. It is an interesting way to introduce WikiLeaks as a legitimate descendant of traditional journalism and Assange as a credible news source. When he faces the international press, Assange explains that, with WikiLeaks, he is “painting a more complete portrait of events we thought we knew but we may not have known at all.” Condon also strives, with less successful results, to do this with his film.

The Fifth Estate has been compared with The Social Network (2010), a movie about the creation of Facebook and the personal fallout between the friends who founded it. However, The Fifth Estate also shares the urgent tone of Margin Call (2011), which deals with the then-recent financial crisis and the investment bank insiders who belatedly tried to contain the damage — subject matter that, like The Fifth Estate’s, may appeal more to an audience looking for cerebral cinema. Whereas The Social Network focuses more on personalities instead of hardcore technology, and Margin Call allows its protagonists at least a few moments of shock or remorse, The Fifth Estate’s “relationship” moments are not as engaging.

The friendship between Assange and Berg never seems on a firm foundation because of Assange’s mercurial personality. Thus, Berg’s increasing dissatisfaction with Assange’s dictates regarding WikiLeaks’ technology, countered by Assange’s mounting paranoia that Berg is taking far too much credit for the site’s success, leads to an inevitable, but surprisingly emotionally unsatisfying breakup. Assange never reveals any personal details that he does not choose to manipulate for immediate gain, so his outbursts always seem contrived — the script never gives Cumberbatch a cathartic moment of “revelation” to play, when the audience understands who Assange truly is and why he reacts as he does. The WikiLeaks guru is always an enigma.

The film does, however, attempt to symbolize what it may be like inside Assange’s mind. He pictures WikiLeaks as a vast newsroom with each desk staffed by a version of himself and sees himself standing amid the falling embers of destroyed documents when betrayed. Cumberbatch effectively portrays but does not mimic Assange’s facial expressions, gestures, and Aussie accent, but his performance is physically limited, given that Assange’s “action” scenes mostly involve keying information. Cumberbatch’s subtly nuanced performance stands out in one scene contrasting Assange’s bravado in “selling” his public image with his fear of being caught by CIA or Russian operatives.

During a hotel bar meeting with The Guardian’s Nick Davies (David Thewlis) following Assange’s speech at the SKUP conference for investigative journalism, Assange is alerted to the presence of agents watching him. After Davies suggests a meeting place from which Assange might escape, the journalist rises to leave the table. Assange nervously sips his drink, his demeanor quickly shifting from braggadocio to fright as he strives to act normally, his hand minutely shaking and his voice quaking as he bids Davies good night.

Brühl plays Berg as a man far easier to understand and like. Within this drama, he has a few lighter moments. When Berg’s girlfriend Anke (Alicia Vikander) catches him sneaking away to work after their first passionate night, Daniel sincerely asks, “Do you have a cryptophone?” Bemused, she responds, “No, but that may be the best excuse I’ve ever heard for not calling.” Berg’s sincerity and loyalty in this film, no doubt aided by the real Daniel Domscheit-Berg as one of the scriptwriters, make him more of a regular guy to whom the audience can relate, but he ultimately fails to provide insights into Assange’s personality.

Bonus Features

The DVD includes only the film and two bonus features: “Trailer and TV Spots” and “The Submission Platform”, but the Blu-ray disc adds two more: “Scoring Secrets” and “In-Camera Graphics”. These features offer in-depth information about preproduction of art and set design, in-camera graphics, and score. Discussions of the film’s technology and techniques should be appreciated by “techies”. However, casual audiences may lose interest in the documentary nature of these segments, although each lasts under ten minutes, simply because the subject matter is so specific. Viewers who want to know precisely how designers and composers approached the challenges presented by The Fifth Estate, with its heavy reliance on computer screens and online texts, will learn a great deal about the way such filmmaking problems are collaboratively solved.

“The Submission Platform: Visual Effects” should be viewed before audiences watch the movie, simply to gain a deeper appreciation for details specific to Assange’s background that may be overlooked by viewers simply following the actors on screen. Assange’s imaginary office, for example, includes props harkening to an earlier era of journalism — such as a rotary telephone — as well as images relating to his childhood. The sand “floor” represents Assange’s early memories of an Australian beach, which figure into the film’s flashbacks and provide clues to Assange’s psyche.

One revelation from “In-Camera Graphics” is that many visual effects were not created during postproduction, as audiences might have assumed. Instead, words representing Assange’s or Berg’s thoughts were projected onto the actors’ faces and the walls behind them, so that the effect could be filmed during the scene. Cumberbatch and Brühl keyed messages to each other in real time during filming, so that the appropriate information appeared on their laptops during the scene. Because of the use of in-camera graphics, the actors reacted to real images on their screens, instead of pretending to work with digital information. The designers’ discussion of techniques specific to this film should interest audiences with an interest in filmmaking.

“Trailer & TV Spots” suggests The Fifth Estate’s marketing challenges. The film’s genre is difficult to pin down. Is it primarily a biopic? a David-and-Goliath thriller? a semi-documentary? a motivational drama to inspire viewers to become The Fifth Estate? Early trailers portray WikiLeaks more sympathetically by focusing on the horrified faces of Assange, Berg, and their supporters as they review leaked US government footage of civilians being killed in a war zone.

Other trailers highlight Assange and question whether he is hero or traitor, genius or madman. After the film had been released, television trailers shifted toward positive reviews, such as a quote from Entertainment Weekly. A look at these trailers provides a brief history of how the marketing efforts pitched the film differently to attract a variety of moviegoers and shows that marketing a film to a “thinking audience” who wants to analyze such a complex topic from multiple perspectives can be a formidable task.

The issues surrounding who should have and who can gain access to information that affects thousands, if not millions of citizens are no clearer today than when Assange set up his website so that whistleblowers could anonymously leak information that, when verified, would be published for the world to see. In the end, what is most controversial about The Fifth Estate is that the film is not nearly controversial enough.

RATING 6 / 10