The Fifth Estate - Review Sherlockabilia Shop Now Open

The Fifth Estate - Review * 12 October 2013


The curious nature of truth and the collateral damage it leaves behind is the main theme running throughout The Fifth Estate, the new drama telling of the creation of WikiLeaks. The film features strong performances from Benedict Cumberbatch as the websites creator Julian Assange and Daniel Bruhl as Daniel Berg, whose point of view we effectively follow throughout. Ultimately it fails to improve our understanding of the events depicted beyond what we can already glean from newsprint, however leaves the final judgement to commend or condemn to the viewer, neither preaching or dictating which direction opinion should fall. 

Even if you know nothing of Assange or WikiLeaks, the most important thing to know before viewing The Fifth Estate is that it is not a biographical drama. Instead of focusing on his background and motivation, with only snatched chunks of dialogue providing a glimpse of the man's history and family life, it presents a silver tongued enigma of a man that enters and leaves scenes quickly but not terribly quietly. The film is relatively even handed in its portrayal of Assange initially, giving us as the viewer the opportunity to really try to understand what he was trying to achieve, before veering more into the realms of negativity as the sheer power he begins to wield simultaneously feeds his egotistical tendencies while threatening to consume him. 


Benedict Cumberbatch is invisible here, in that there is no sign of his real personality or mannerisms, nor any other character he has played in the past, but that being said, it is not hard to see why he is the perfect actor to play this role. Eccentric, egocentric, oddball, manipulative, charismatic, visionary, (the word Asperger's even comes up) - these are just some of the many facets that make up this representation of Assange, and the sort of complex character traits Cumberbatch is extremely adept and comfortable portraying, as we have seen him demonstrate to great effect in the past. Although a million miles away from his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, it is impossible not to see similarities in the fact that they are both men who will not conform, driven to lead the way and challenge the system.

If the film is not a biographical drama of Julian Assange per se, it is more a telling of the association of Daniel Berg with the WikiLeaks website, from his early meetings with Assange to his acrimonious departure. Daniel Bruhl, so superb only weeks ago in his bitingly clinical yet humanistic performance as Nikki Lauda in F1 drama Rush, remains excellent but subdued and far less nuanced here as Berg, the more idealistic and normal soul pulled into the orbit of Assange before other, less important bodies also form part of the Wikileaks system. Cumberbatch and Bruhl's chemistry on screen pays dividends in making these two polar opposite personalities work together in building a strong, yet ultimately impossible friendship that the focus narrative is based on. Like John Watson's everyman, Berg is inspired and drawn to such a man. In fact he is somewhat blind sighted initially, resulting in Assange eventually monopolising his life completely, and there is even a strangely familiar scene where we see Assange's unexpected arrival at Berg's apartment, producing a 'him or me' ultimatum from his girlfriend. 


The film also features a massive supporting cast of excellent actors, from David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi (Steven Moffat's new Doctor, in case you have been off planet recently) and Dan Stevens (proving there is life after Downton Abbey) as journalists at The Guardian, to Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as players in the US government. Through the size of this cast though there is arguably too much meat on the narrative bones for one film to carry comfortably. This is most obvious in the friendship of the (apparently fictional) characters played by Laura Linney and Alexander Siddig. Their storyline is ultimately surplus to requirements, intended to make the narrative even handed and meant to show the human cost of Wikileaks' release of secret, un-redacted information, but instead is in danger of weighing down the film. 

Possibly in an attempt not to bloat the film, the motivations for Assange's crusade and apparent paranoia that leads to the constant country hopping throughout the early stages of the film, are not readily explained. On the flipside, the endless globe-trotting does of course mean the film is filled with genuinely breathtaking scenery and locations, which helps to reinforce the global nature of the reach of the internet. 


Ultimately The Fifth Estate can only ever be a story half told (much like the doubtlessly comparative The Social Network, based on the origin of Facebook,) as the place of Julian Assange in history has yet to be fully decided. True, it chronicles Daniel Berg's association with the website from beginning to end to form a narrative line, but as with any story that depicts a prominent or infamous public figure he is not the one we are terribly interested in. As a wry, and possibly obvious aside, Assange and Berg are at one point compared to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, genuine pillars of investigative journalism who left an instant mark upon the world through their felling of Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal. But even though The Fifth Estate actually has a slightly longer distance from events than All the President's Men, when both were made only a couple of years after the events they depict, the latter film had the benefit of a definitive, and incredible, ending with the takedown of the President of the United States.

As this is a story that is still ongoing Julian Assange is neither toppled, or redeemed, but backed into a corner in the Eucadorian embassy in London, where he remains and the final scene of the film shows him, in a clever close that throws the film back at both the audience and arguably Wikileaks itself. The film is set on questioning the requirement for the truth above any other, but Cumberbatch's Assange, talking directly to camera, makes us stop and take stock of all we have seen, and question whether we believe it or not. It is, afterall, based on the point of view of a man who bitterly split from the site itself. This ending sums up that the story of the creation of Wikileaks is an incredible one without doubt, but arguably it is one that could only be told properly once the dust has settled and history can judge who and what Julian Assange ultimately stands for.