Usually, movies derived from current or recent events take
one of two courses: to reveal, or speculate about, the background story we
don’t know, or to provide insight into the actions of familiar real-life
figures. Writer Peter Morgan is particularly adept at this, as he has shown in
such screenplays as The Queen and Frost/Nixon. Sorry to say, The Fifth Estate falls short in both areas.
Back in 2010, I read an absorbing, in-depth profile of Julian Assange in We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, which covered much of the same territory while bringing events up to date. I hoped that an ambitious, intelligent Hollywood feature would further illuminate the story in some way, but it doesn’t. Instead, Josh Singer’s screenplay attempts to humanize the headline-making saga by focusing on the relationship between the elusive, Australian-born Assange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and his German colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl).
The bullet points of WikiLeaks’ rise and fall are dutifully covered, with particular attention paid to the dynamics of its links to the conventional press. But the movie bites off more than it can chew, trying to explore both the personal story of Assange and Domscheit-Berg and the ever-growing impact of their revelations—along with the pressing questions of ethical boundary lines.
The movie even (unwisely) tries to dramatize the other side of the story by eavesdropping on Washington insiders, played by Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci.
On the one hand it’s all too much, and at the same time, not enough. To reduce the smear campaign against Assange, and the subsequent sex allegations, to a couple of throwaway lines of dialogue, is preposterous.
If you know nothing at all about Julian Assange and his operation, I suppose The Fifth Estate will serve as a barely-adequate introduction, but I would urge anyone with a modicum of interest to read up on the subject or check out Gibney’s documentary instead.
P.S. Just in case we haven’t been paying attention, the film offers a climactic scene in which David Thewlis, as a Guardian editor, recites a term-paper-like summation of the story, pointing out the pros and cons of WikiLeaks in the world of journalism. It is the clunkiest piece of exposition I’ve encountered in any movie of recent memory.