“I now much better understand that,” a gentleman exclaimed as we exited the Elgin Theatre following a premiere screening of Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate. Despite his poor grammatical choices, this Toronto International Film Festival patron was proud to announce that he had a firm handle on the multi-faceted WikiLeaks scandal, and the role Web site founder Julian Assange played in what is described as the largest confidential information leak in world history.
That makes one of us.
Condon, himself, leaks hefty amounts of information on his audience as he tries to create All the Presidents Men for the Wikipedia generation. He recreates the early days of WikiLeaks, when Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and like-minded prop hacker Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) created a cyber safe haven for corporate and political whistleblowers. The movie builds to the moral conflicts waged over the release of “the war documents” – thousands of classified papers co-published by The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel that gave crucial insight into U.S. military actions in the Middle East. It’s a compelling narrative, and in the final 30 minutes of his ripped-from-the-headlines exercise, the urgency of tech-driven Web journalism and the weight of its potential global impact finally work hand in hand to help the director generate palpable tension.
But The Fifth Estate encounters a few obstacles on the way to its riveting conclusion, most generated by Josh Singer’s melodramatic screenplay. Assange is a mystery, a techno-savior who spouts hollow platitudes about changing the world through transparency. Viewed through Berg’s eyes, we’re never sure we can fully trust Assange, which frees Cumberbatch up to play him several different ways. As much as I admire Cumberbatch as a performer, I found him miscast as Assange. The polished actor doesn't embody the anarchistic cyber-punk spirit that Assange is supposed to represent. In fact, Condon often tries to spice up Estate with distracting visual tricks meant to simulate the rock-and-roll anti-establishment war cry of the WikiLeaks rebels. But pretending to be rebellious so that your mission looks dangerous is a deadly line to walk, particularly when you misfire.
Convoluted and a bit too slick for its subject matter, The Fifth Estate raises too many interesting questions about online journalism and the accomplishments of Assange to fully dismiss it. The collaboration of Old Media outlets on WikiLeaks’ largest story truly was unprecedented, and while attempts at discrediting Assange have stumbled, his influence on the field of modern journalism can not be overlooked. Someday, WikiLeaks will get its own equivalent of The Social Network only with so much information to disseminate, I suspect it’s going to have to come in documentary form-- and with Alex Gibney's We Steal Secrets already out there, it may already have.
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