The Fifth Estate (Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl) — Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder, has become one of the most captivating characters of the 21st Century. He is living proof that a computer and chutzpah can make you famous. The Fifth Estate is his unauthorized biopic (not to be confused with the documentary also making the rounds these days). Assange is portrayed as a driven, messianic mystery man with an obsession for acquiring and disclosing secrets. Assange is hardly a bastion of virtue; his motivations are unclear. Is it ego that drives him or a commitment to truth, justice and the anything-but-American way? Assange’s release of classified information from many governments almost certainly cost lives.
He was able to convince the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel to collaborate with him on the release of secret Afghanistan cables and war strategy. For this, he drew the wrath of the American government and its allies, resulting in his current dilemma, that is, living his life in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London while being under subpoena for sex crimes in Sweden.
The risk of this film rests in the tendency to make Assange either a cartoonish figure or a demi-god. Instead, the film portrays him as cock-sure, self-centered, and committed, but far from either perfect or fatally flawed. He is clearly brilliant in that genius sort of way that commands a sinister glint in his eye in addition to his died white hair. Benedict Cumberbatch, introduced to the world as the arch villain in the latest Star Trek film, gives a sterling performance as Assange. His command of Assange’s accent and mannerisms, oft seen in Assange’s many media inter views, could garner him an Oscar nomination.
Assange is essentially the classical loner who attracted other computer hackers and freedom-of-information zealots to a cause that he continues to this day. One of them, Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl), is a central character in the movie and the man who tried to limit the damage Assange could wreak. Bruhl’s portrayal is brilliant and layered and may also be remembered at Oscar time in a supporting role.
Assange has criticized the film and the documentary and refused to cooperate with either. Undoubtedly, he believes that only he can star in a film about him. The biggest problem with the film may be the dialogue-heavy script and the limitations of a biopic where the lead actor has to command almost every scene. The attempt to expand the range of the film by adding U.S. government officials (played by Oscar nominees Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney plus Anthony Mackie of The Adjustment Bureau) comes off as superfluous. Plus, I hated the soundtrack, which was laden with that techno-pounding nightclub sound that must attract loonies.
The title, of course, derives from the role of the press as the Fourth Estate. Assange ostensibly takes that role a step further by presumably illuminating the many secrets of the first three “estates” (government in its three branches). As a film, The Fifth Estate is a good character study. But it is not brilliant storytelling.