The Fifth Estate desperately wants to be a movie about Julian Assange, the enigmatic founder and leader of Wikileaks. Problem is, it’s not really a movie about Assange. Instead, it’s really about Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who worked with Assange for a few years. It’s based on his book (along with one other) and he’s clearly the audience surrogate – the one who lets us in on the story.
But since The Fifth Estate wants to be a movie about somebody else, we don’t really learn enough about Berg to care about him or his motivations. It’s unclear why he hooked up with Assange (they knew each other when the movie’s timeline starts, although they were just meeting in person for the first time) and whether their eventual rupture was inevitable or the result of Assange really going over a bridge too far.
The biggest problem with this isn’t that Berg’s story might have been more interesting – maybe it isn’t – but that without a good anchor into the broader story of Wikileaks the person the film wants to be the center of attention, Assange, isn’t that interesting, either. Benedict Cumberbach (sp?) does pretty well with what little he’s got to work with, styling Assange as an aloof egomaniac with a messiah complex who may, nonetheless, be doing the right thing.
The shallowness of all this is evidenced via a running joke, in which Assange will relate some harrowing experience and then quip that’s why he has white hair. Late in the film Berg offers the real secret – he dyes it (no shit!) because that’s what the cult in which he grew up did. Assange has already told us about the cult, so this really isn’t anything new. What’s set up as some kind of big reveal – I thought, perhaps, Assange’s whole back story had been a lie cooked up to enhance his image – really isn’t. You shrug and move on, just as with the rest of the film.
It doesn’t help that most of the action takes place on computers and Hollywood hasn’t really figured out yet how to make that interesting. The great achievement of The Social Network was making a story about computers about people instead, so the (very brief) bits of actual computing we see mean something. Too many of the characters in The Fifth Estate spend too much time tapping out stuff on keyboards that we, the viewers, can’t even read (seriously – when the climax is happening it’s nearly impossible to figure what people are saying to each other). At one point it looks like, in an accommodation for dramatic purposes, that folks might read what they’re typing in a voiceover, but that only happens once. Somebody should have stuck with that instinct.
Amidst all that I suppose it’s no surprise that the central conflict, brought into sharp relief by the release of documents leaked by American soldier Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, almost comes out of nowhere. While there are earlier cites to the Wikileaks policy of never editing or redacting the documents they release, nobody really questions this policy or how it might run up against conflicting concerns (say, the safety of innocent third parties) until it actually happens. Some better philosophical and political groundwork would have made that climax more powerful and dramatic.
In the end, there are a couple of better movies waiting to escape The Fifth Estate, one about Assange and one about Berg. It’s a shame the creative team behind The Fifth Estate didn’t have the material to make the first one or the desire to make the second one. Don’t take my word for it – Assange didn’t like it either.