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In the good old days, theaters used to run a newsreel before the feature presentation. Now with The Fifth Estate, the subject of film itself has barely left the front page. And because the story dramatizing the life of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is one that is still evolving, it almost seems too early for anyone to really capture a definitive perspective. Regardless, director Bill Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer attempt to do just that, working from books penned by insider Daniel Domscheit-Berg, and journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding.
Although Julian Assange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is the principal subject of the movie, point-of-view is everything. In this case the tale of the controversial website creator is seen through the eyes of Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) who first meets the white-haired Australian in person at the Chaos Computer Congress in Berlin. Best described as a techno-hippie, Berg watches Assange’s scattered presentation about his novel and safe method for whistleblowers to reveal corruption. While inspired by the cause of true freedom of speech, Burg suspects the real genius of the idea is being obscured by Assange’s tactless demeanor and technospeak. A computer hacker extraordinaire himself, Berg offers his publicity efforts and IT skills to help make Wikileaks successful. Along the way the bespectacled geek also manages to place himself into the wary Assange’s inner-circle.
During the early days the organization focuses on leaks exposing corruption within a Swiss bank and treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. These altruistic topics are things the two divergent men can agree on—even if their methods are dissimilar. Yet as more “leaks” are published, pressure from governments and media begins to increase. The situation finally reaches a boiling point when Private Bradley Manning provides hundreds of thousands of documents from a U.S. Military database. Wanting to capture the certain publicity that would result from the release of this classified correspondence, Assange is determined to expose the files in their raw format. However Berg is concerned that without redacting the names within the documents, lives will be at risk. The disagreement about pure-verses-censored information, and the ethical implications of each, becomes a sticking point in their working relationship.
Most of the action in this film is a war of words. To break-up some of the heavy dialogue, the moviemakers use artsy symbolism to represent the virtual world in which some of the conflict exists. They also illustrate current events with real news footage (sometimes featuring disturbing images) and the occasional dramatic re-enactment. One of the latter shows the vivid execution of two men with blood effects. As well, a subplot follows a strained romantic relationship that includes implied sexual activity (a man and woman begin undressing each other), along with some sexual references and innuendo.
Another concern for parents considering sharing this film with their teens will be the script’s use of about a half-dozen sexual expletives and a good assortment of other profanities. And this is a shame because the unnecessary language will hamper what I see as the movie’s best use: Stimulating conversation in homes and classrooms on a variety of topics related to media and freedom of information.
Perhaps the most obvious interpretive discussion is the fact the movie is based on Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s book, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website. This bias towards his point of view is one of the many reasons Assange has reacted negatively to this production. (Read this lengthy document, which includes a script sent to Assange prior to the movie’s release and his assertions that much of the movie is pure fiction, including Berg’s relationship with the organization.)
So what is fact and what is fiction? Whose secrets should remain confidential and whose should be exposed? Is there such a thing as truth, or only skewed perspectives? The Fifth Estate certainly does leave you asking questions. And when it comes to deciding if Assange’s work makes him a hero or a traitor, the answer will entirely depend on what lens you chose to view him through.
The Fifth Estate is rated R: for language and some violence.
Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Carice van Houten, Daniel Brühl, Alicia Vikander
Studio: 2013 Touchstone Pictures
Website: Official site for The Fifth Estate.