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Film Review: The Fifth Estate

The Fifth Estate (2013; Directed by Bill Condon)

For its brief, blazing moment of iconoclastic, order-shaking maximum influence, WikiLeaks might have been the defining force of our age. An uncompromising news site specializing in publishing top-secret information leaked by anonymous sources whose identities its sophisticated platform protected, WikiLeaks is inextricably identified with its founder, the zealously anti-establishmentarian Australian activist hacker Julian Assange; indeed, WikiLeaks has always been understood as an extension of Assange’s rebelliously extreme free-speech ideology, as a version of himself coded, linked, and hosted for all the world to either admire, hate, or both at once. Assange and WikiLeaks accessed a deep undercurrent of antipathy towards the prevailing neoliberal democratic capitalist order, a distrust of its promises of prosperity, a pained suspicion that the shimmering surfaces of the West’s easy confidence and visible luxury was a living fantasy made possible only by a concealed reservoir of suffering and exploitation. Conspiracy theorists, no small constituency in our multifarious mass culture, found much to interest them there as well.

Assange’s WikiLeaks tapped into the revolutionary potential of the internet unlike any other force ever has, marshalling it to violently pull back the curtain and insist that the world pay closer attention to the man behind it. The system that governs our lives runs on secrets, and WikiLeaks let us see those secrets in all of their voluminous detail, warts and all. That system pushed back after Assange and WikiLeaks masterminded a series of bombshell releases through 2010, exposing first American military activity and practice in Iraq and Afghanistan and then the inside workings of its diplomatic network with the aid and patina of mainstream legitimacy of media giants the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel. Charged with sexual assault in Sweden and weakened by public relations miscalculations, the increasingly paranoid and fabulist Assange was forced to hide out in the Ecuadorean embassy in London (where he remains to this day), his friends and collaborators alienated from him, and his grand cause and mission gravely wounded.

This is a majestic, complex, deeply resonant saga with tragic contours and vital lessons about the issues and struggles of the increasingly untenable contemporary political, social, and moral condition, the complacency and dangerous acceptance of which Assange hoped to disrupt and challenge in the finest moments of WikiLeaks. The Fifth Estate, Bill Condon’s fictionalized cinematic account of Assange’s rise and WikiLeaks’ moonshot whistleblow, almost completely blows its chance to tell this story of our age as a film for the ages. It fritters away an utterly uncanny Assange impersonation from Benedict Cumberbatch that is miraculously both sympathetically observed and absolutely damning. But more than anything, Condon’s film is adrift from the milieu of high-tech, leading-edge information advocacy in which it is based. There’s something awkwardly, laughably touristic about The Fifth Estate that it never overcomes, no matter what approach it decides to take.

The Fifth Estate is nominally a technological thriller, but really it’s a species of buddy road movie. Cumberbatch’s Assange meets and begins to work with a German programmer, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), on the fledgling WikiLeaks, exposing corruption around the world from centrally-manipulated Kenyan elections to tax-dodging Swiss banks. Despite Assange’s eccentric, misanthropic, and often rude manner (“I’ve heard people say I dangle on the autistic spectrum”, he admits in one of his occasional open, honest moments) and the disapproval of his girlfriend Anke (Alicia Vikander), Domscheit-Berg believes in the WikiLeaks mission, working hard to spread its gospel and convert new apostles to its church of the Truth. They meet and plan and leak information and self-promote in a series of coffee shops, artists’ communes, and insufferable tech conventions and thought-leaders symposiums across the Continent. The thread of the plot is woven by the friendship between these two men, Cumberbatch as the Aspergers-ish asshole genius (a stretch for him, I know) and the likable Brühl grounding their revolutionary enterprise with an avuncular manner and the EU’s most pinchable cheeks. WikiLeaks’ ultimate Icarus-like fall from great neo-journalistic heights is couched in this film as a consequence of their fractured partnership. The end of a revolution as the end of a bromance.

Pale and sibilant, smug and languid, driven and passionate, compelling and repelling, Cumberbatch’s Assange is the key feature of The Fifth Estate, and he’s written and played as a sort of unreliable trickster hero-villain. Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight is an unexpected point of reference, with Assange accounting for his distinctive bone-white locks with various explanations – some serious, some not, none of them true – much as the Joker gave his leering grin of a facial scar different origin stories at different times. He’s difficult and charming in fits and starts, prone to wild swings of poor behaviour at the slightest provocation: invited to dinner at Daniel’s parents’ house, Assange veers into monstrous rudeness and walks out once he learns that his friend’s activist nom de guerre alias (Schmitt) came from the family cat. His own youthful hacker handle, Mendax, stems pretentiously from the Roman poet Horace, of course. His juvenile betrayal at the hands of his hacking confrères has instilled in him a deep distrust of others, and it’s firmly suggested that his childhood with his mother in an Aussie cult known as the Family led to an unorthodox socialization and emotional formation, to put it mildly. Cumberbatch weaves all of this psychological detail into Assange’s glances and pauses, an impeccable tapestry of raging, colliding neuroses.

It’s a shame that Condon’s film is consistently unworthy of such a nuanced and troubling depiction of a major public figure. It’s evident early on that the cascade of digital information and complexity of a worldwide network will be portrayed with a heavy, stultifying touch: Matrix-style scrolling columns of binary zip by, programming efforts get conventional montages, and WikiLeaks’ networked submissions platform is visualized as an infinite office floor of desk stations open to the sky; when **SPOILER** Domscheit-Berg takes it down near the film’s end, he smashes overhead lightning and flips desks in slow motion. It’s moronically cornpone, and far too much of the movie is as well.

The Fifth Estate also casts too wide a net, tacking on a subplot focusing on U.S. State Department officials (Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci), a White House spokesman (Anthony Mackie), and a Libyan informer (Alexander Siddig) dealing with the fallout of WikiLeaks’ release of the war logs and diplomatic cables, the latter of which slipped out in unredacted form (as Assange always insisted upon: “We do not edit”) and exposed secret sources around the globe. These releases allowed WikiLeaks’ critics in the American defence establishment and political and media elite to discredit Assange’s authority by accusing him of having “blood on his hands”, and when combined with the Swedish charges and his embassy confinement (which are dealt with only briefly in the denouement), this constituted a serious body-blow to his larger cause. While The Fifth Estate does not show Siddig’s Dr. Haliseh or any other such source meeting an untimely end because of the leaks, it treats the danger they faced with utter conviction.

The message is clear: despite his righteous intent, Assange went too far when he went after the government of the United States of America and its allies. Not that any concerted, conspiratorial collusions by the powers that be against Assange and his project are ever shown; the film is not as paranoid as its subject. The Fifth Estate does a pantomime of Assange’s principled iconoclastic activism but subscribes to conventional wisdom about the inevitable self-destructive tendency of the erectors of barricades throughout history, be they actual or digital. The film musters outrage only at individual, human-sized atrocities that WikiLeaks exposes: the shocking video of a deadly 2007 Baghdad airstrike with audio from glib and heartless American gunners, the murder of Assange’s Kenyan co-activists. Assange sees a wider panorama of corruption and insidious secrecy and seeks above all to drag it kicking and screaming into the light of day, but The Fifth Estate finally resolves to clutch its pearls and decide that some things are best kept hidden. This story of a man who sought to shake the establishment shores up that threatened superstructure and defends its imperatives, both political and aesthetic, in the end. And it’s a definite disappointment.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. March 21, 2016 at 5:48 pm

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