Condon’s fast-paced thriller examines the real events of the still topical Wikileaks scandal. The story follows the relationship between founder of the controversial anti-secrecy website, the enigmatic Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the website’s idealistic spokesman Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl) as Wikileaks gradually becomes less a platform for free speech and more a threat to lives and security. Featuring Laura Linney as American government official Sarah Shaw, and Peter Capaldi as Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, The Fifth Estate addresses issues ranging from the BNP to 9/11 to ‘Cablegate’ and explores the wide-ranging impact complete transparency has on the world’s press, its governments and its people.
The film endeavours to present two sides of a very complex and morally grey coin rather than take a side in the freedom of the press debate. Like Brülh’s character, the audience is at first swept up in the belief that Assange’s mission to expose corruption and defend free speech is brave and revolutionary. However, as the story develops and the website’s content and publicity gathers momentum the whole matter becomes less black and white. It felt as if Condon intended to spark debate with this film, rather than condone or condemn Assange and his actions and ethos.
The film is as much an examination Wikileaks as it is a deeply personal look at Julian Assange. In the rare moments of calm between furious typing and international diplomacy crises, the audience is drip-fed details of Assange’s personal life in the form of small monologues. The regularity of these often very sad or disturbing revelations, though seemingly rather formulaic, gives a welcome respite from the high adrenaline of the rest of the film and allows us an insight into a fascinating and complicated man.
It seems Cumberbatch is becoming used to playing enigmatic and troubled geniuses, the enormity of whose intellect is matched only by their lack of social awareness. For those who will go to see this film just for its lead actor the parallels between Assange and Sherlock will be hard get over. Not that Cumberbatch was the wrong choice for this role, his capturing of Assange’s idiosyncrasies and flawless accent is almost a Michael Sheen-worthy embodiment of a public figure. What underpins this film is the relationship between Assange and Berg; the mysterious genius and the keen idealist who start out with a shared vision but whose very differing ideas about friendship and morality ultimately lead to hostility. It felt at times like a slightly more serious version of the Zuckerberg- Eduardi Saverin relationship in The Social Network.
As well as an intriguing central relationship the film looked very good. The titles and graphics were slick and impressive. Condon’s symbolic visual representation of what seemed to be the ‘inside of the internet’ comprised of rows of computers existing in a strange non-space which seemed like an office but with the sky as the ceiling. An interesting approach which was ultimately effective despite at times being less distinguishable as omnipotent cyberspace and more reminiscent of a high-tech version of The Great Hall at Hogwarts.
Part of the fascination this film will have for audiences is that the subject matter is still fiercely topical; Julian Assange currently still taking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. No less intriguing is the altercation between Cumberbatch and Assange before the film was made. Cumberbatch revealed the Wikileaks founder politely responded to request to meet in person with an appeal that film not be made and that the actor abandon the role. Condon embraces the central notion of freedom of speech by concluding with an interview in which Cumberbatch as Assange both ridicules the idea of a ‘Wikileaks film’ and dismisses as lies the books from which the film was adapted. This strange sort of meta-film moment cleverly brings a new focus to the debates surrounding free speech and censorship at its centre. The fast pace, detailed plot-line and multiple locations, though perhaps not leaving room for supporting characters to develop, meant this film was ultimately an exciting and engaging watch.
By Lily Beazley