The Fifth Estate is a film of contrasts; the contrast between the controversial topic and the A-list cast; the contrast between Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl), between Wikileaks’ intention and the eventual reaction and consequences, but most importantly between traditional print media and online sources of information – the Fourth, and eponymous, Fifth Estate.
Almost manic in its delivery of information The Fifth Estate captures the hectic and sometimes chaotic atmosphere that appears to have surrounded Julian Assange and Wikileaks. The constant movement from country to country only emphasises the global impact of the organisation and of the story the film is trying to tell.
Based on a book published by The Guardian in 2011, The Fifth Estate attempts to bring the “unvarnished truth” to light, a task in which Assange believes they have failed. His categoric dismissal of the film is addressed in a particularly self-aware section at the very end of the film where Cumberbatch is shown, in close up as Assange, rejecting the validity of any “Wikileaks film”.
Cumberbatch’s brilliant character study is the key to the films success, while Brühl’s depiction of Daniel Berg is by far the more emotionally engaging performance; Cumberbatch’s Assange has the kind of manic intelligence, with a hint of instability that makes him captivating to watch. The subtle decline of his character from cool collected freedom fighter to reckless egotist is seamless and beautifully controlled.
In dealing with such a public story there is little left to reveal to an audience aside from technical details and finer points of negotiation; The Fifth Estate relies on it method of delivery to excite. The opening sequence is a potted history of the media from the newsstand to, well, Newsstand (the latter being the virtual, Apple funded kind); and this fast paced bombardment of graphics continues through out. While the onslaught of images is tiring, the impact of so much information is vital in setting the scene for such a story. Other images, such as Daniel’s imagined infinite office space, are catalysts for emotion; with their slight adjustments through out the film delivering a direct line to the heart of the story’s emotional undercurrent.
Interestingly the story with the most deep seated emotion is that between Daniel and Julian, however Josh Singer (author of this adaptation), seems to have lacked confidence in the central storylines ability to engage as he choses to focus sections of the film of Daniel’s relationship with Anke (Alicia Vikander). This romantic element neither adds nor detracts from the plot, perhaps making Daniel’s character slightly more relatable but only really succeeding in making Anke look needy. “Yes, darling you might be stopping international acts of injustice, but I’ve made a casserole and you didn’t eat it!” It’s not really clear the point or the impact the character of Anke is meant to have.
I started by saying The Fifth Estate is a film of contrasts, one of the biggest being that between the aims and the consequences of the Wikileaks organisation. The American Government, nicely personified by Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci, struggle to protect their sources, sometimes from situations of evitable death thanks to Assange’s narcissistic single-mindedness. This play off between the papers, Wikileaks and the US government makes up the majority of the second act of the film. Director Bill Condon handles it magnificently; the juxtaposition of Assange’s ego, the human and personal concern of Linney and Tucci as well as the turmoil of Daniel is riveting. The final act of The Fifth Estate is one of the most beautifully produced and well-considered political dramas I have ever seen.
The Fifth Estate is brilliantly acted with a fantastic cast, and I haven’t even mentioned David Thewlis as calm and controlled Guardian journalist Nick Davis. While the first 15 minutes may feel a little contrite to some, backpack sporting computer nerds go to cool art-house raves in old East Berlin etc., it really matures into something much bigger. Certainly a comment on the actions of the press, any press, but also a call to arms for a new generation of activists; the outcome for Assange and the gang may have been far from perfect but the injustices that they uncovered were real and were deliberately hidden from view. If The Fifth Estate does nothing else it at least raises the issues that were swept under the carpet once the Assange witch-hunt began.
Perhaps we could call it the political Social Network? The Fifth Estate is a well considered, although mildly anti-Assange film. It is quite simply one of the most engaging, relevant political dramas around at the moment. Its acting pedigree has earned it a significant amount of press, but the attention is certainly not unjustified and it is well worth the 2 hours of your life it will take up.