The Fifth Estate

The Fifth Estate


The Fifth Estate brings the remarkable story behind Julian Assange to the big screen. Shot as a thriller/docudrama by director Bill Condon, the film reveals the events that lead to WikiLeaks being the global watchdog that it serves as, today. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange and Daniel Bruhl as Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the movie attempts to depict the thrilling circumstances that have characterised Assange’s life.


Benedict Cumberbatch
Daniel Brühl
Anthony Mackie
David Thewlis
Alicia Vikander
Stanley Tucci
Laura Linney


Bill Condon


18th October, 2013


128 Minutes


The term Fifth Estate finds definition from the Fourth Estate, or as we call it, the press. And so this film is about a reporting watchdog, albeit a different breed in WikiLeaks. Dealing with the rise and fall (?) of Julian Assange, the movie aims to examine issues such as dissemination of sensitive information and the privacy of citizens. These issues are fraught with the perils of falling afoul of the authorities and other knotty ethical dilemmas.


The film kicks off with a montage displaying some of the more pivotal moments in history such as the Kennedy assassination and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  It is a good way to start and an exercise in perspective adjustment in this day and age of information. There seems to be a not so subtle nod the actual Fourth Estate and some of its more notable moments.


Based on Berg’s book, the film finds definition in his version of events. We meet him and Assange at a press conference as the classified trove of US documents is published simultaneously by Der Spiegel, The Guardian and The New York Times. The frantic machinations of the press are on full display and Bill Condon does well enough in capturing the frenetic haze of activity that defines this 2010 event.


Daniel Berg meets Assange due to his hacker affiliations and is taken in with Assange’s ideas. He becomes the first volunteer for WikiLeaks and with his help, it evolves into a group of volunteers working overtime, seduced by Assange’s vision of full public disclosure. Berg plays the fanboy with surprising enthusiasm, though his act fails to display the depth that may have been very welcome.


The direction is confused and jerky for the most part. Bill Condon fancies himself as a hybrid of Paul Greengrass and Danny Boyle with a penchant for jumping across European cities and hand held cameras. While hand held cameras are a must for thriller movies, they are somewhat unwarranted when all the characters do is sit around and uncover information.


There is a distinct flatness to the script and despite this being a very filmable story, the movie lacks definition and feels rigid and lackadaisical in its handling. Whilst not a bad film by any stretch, the Fifth Estate could have been much so much more. The performances by actors such as Daniel Bruhl (Berg), Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney are decent but lack the distinct class that Cumberbatch brings to his rendition of Assange.


He does a fantastic job as the white haired, Australian hacker extraordinaire acting as an advocate for the free information movement. His lines are a bit clichéd, and try to show excessive glimpses of a past that doesn’t seem so attractive when referred to so offhandedly. His ethical decisions are in focus as well, with his refusal to keep some whistle-blowers anonymous, leading to Bradley Manning’s recent sentencing.


All in all, The Fifth Estate is a taut, at times tedious affair. There is enough material for a great movie, but the film is a let-down. It is still eminently watchable for the questions it raises for us citizens of the Internet Age. Should there be no secrets? Or should national interests be first? Is the nation ultimately bigger than a particular individual? Does an overdose of power not lead to its misuse? Can we take the decision to trust individuals that supposedly have our best interests at heart?


Questions galore. And while the answers aren’t forthcoming, there is food for thought. Ultimately, the Fifth Estate fails because of its inability to be in the image of the man it takes inspiration from. While Assange’s personality dominated WikiLeaks, the same cannot be said of this film.





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