The Fifth Estate (2013)

First off, Julian Assange had condemned the making of the film. The WikiLeaks founder had written to Benedict Cumberbatch (12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County) to dissuade him from picking up the role as his onscreen persona. The letter was published on his website days prior to the film’s general release in theatres. After seeing the movie, I can understand why.

The Fifth Estate Movie Poster copyCumberbatch has presented to us, kudos to his gripping performance and transformation to the Australian accent, an Assange that is fully committed to his cause of absolute freedom to access of information and safe-guarding of whistleblowers in the world with his online organization WikiLeaks, and yet, viewers also see a man who is egotistic, callous, and even to the point of fanatical.

With the portrayal of the different facets of the man, we are confronted with both sides of the issue of transparency. On the one hand, governments, banks, and institutions are made accountable and corruptions and wrongdoings can be exposed. A consequence could be, as in the leaks of 250,000 US diplomatic cables (Cablegate), the inevitable compromising of privacy and security of individuals, leaving lives at stake, such as informants in dictatorial regimes as their identities are disclosed.

Indeed, we live in a messy, messy world. It would be much easier if things are in black and white, and if events can happen much slower for our grasp. The styling of the film could well have conveyed some of that sentiment. It tells the story of Assange’s founding of WikiLeaks and its cases in slick, flashy and fast paced, montage-like treatment. Certain concepts are rendered in a fanciful, almost cartoonish way. Coming into the theatre without much expectation, I have no qualms with the visual metaphors in depicting cyberspace and the digital hacking workhouse.

Following the cases that flash by may be a bit rash on first viewing, but they are thrilling sequences. From a David and Goliath battle of one man against money laundering in the giant Swiss Julius Baer Bank, to political death squad in Kenya, to the now termed ‘collateral murder’ of Reuter reporters and innocent bystanders by U.S. helicopter pilots in Iraq, to the recent Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning leaks of Afghan and Iraq army logs and 250,000 diplomatic cables, we as viewers may want more in-depth handling. However, as this is not a documentary, director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Gods and Monsters) has dealt with the subject relatively well within a two hour period.

The movie is based on two books which Assange had denounced in his letter to Cumberbatch, claiming their malicious intent and the lack of truths. One is Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, an initial follower who soon becomes Assange’s right-hand-man, until the leaks of the diplomatic cables. Domscheit-Berg’s main concern is the lives that would be compromised if the cables are published without redacting and screening, while Assange insists on unedited, all out exposure. For his role as Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Daniel Brühl (Rush) delivers a convincing performance that matches Cumberbatch’s in the film.

Benedict Cumberbatch & Daniel Brühl copy

While the cast includes such fine supporting actors as Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, David Thewlis, Dan Stevens… it is Cumberbatch and Brühl that carry the whole show, with the two starting off as complementary partners, albeit Assange remains the domineering one, to the disintegration of their relationship. For those who like to compare movies with similar subject matter, this is no Social Network. ‘Socializing’ is too trivial a word here. WikiLeaks involves much more dangerous and deadly issues. If anything, Condon’s is a light approach to presenting the complex and controversial subjects of transparency, privacy, and global security.

After watching the movie, I was surprised to discover the generally low ratings it receives. I admit, one can’t compare it to the intricacy of The Social Network, but it is still an entertaining, visual synopsis of some ongoing news events that deserve our attention. The film is a springboard to some needed thinking and discussions before drawing conclusions for ourselves, as the character Assange urges us to do at the end of the movie. Alas, here’s the rub. In our messy and blurry world of truths and fiction, that just may not be an easy task to do.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

13 thoughts on “The Fifth Estate (2013)”

  1. I have not seen this yet, wanted to, but couldn’t this weekend. Im excited to see it, however, and to see how honest they were while still providing what a movie should be: entertainment. its a delicate issue with two sides of the coin to look at. I, for one, think it an important enough issue to bring to light on screen.
    Thank you!


  2. Thanks for introducing this. I didn’t know the it was about wikileaks. Got me all curious now and perhaps I should read the book too! I am slightly adverse to Hollywood movies and prefer documentaries but this would do for its entertainment value I hope. I wish the real Julian Assange would have played himself, he looks much better than the on screen actor! 😀


    1. JoV,

      Julian Assange denounced the making of this film. Don’t think he’d like to be on screen in a movie made by someone else other than himself. And lol, this screen actor who plays him is ubiquitous nowadays. He’s Sherlock (BBC TV), Tietjens in Parade’s End, Khan in Star Trek into Darkness, Smaug in The Hobbit, Peter Guillam in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and in two possible Oscar films 12 Years a Slave and August: Osage County. He sure doesn’t look like this in his other performances. 😉


  3. I’m very eager to see this one as you know. Your review is thoughtful and well stated. It makes me want to see it all the more! (Couldn’t wait till later, could you?!) And your comment to JoV – you’re right — BC has a million faces!


  4. I am not a movie-goer, but as a member of the Cumber-Collective, I watched the progress of this movie quite intently. BC committed himself utterly to a difficult role – one which he probably knew would garner little attention and some possible irritation (from Assange).

    And as an afterthought: ‘Sherlock S3’ premieres 1/19/2014!


    1. aubrey,

      The Cumber-Collective… I like that name, better than the previous one, uh… you know which one I’m thinking of. At least, CC is gender neutral and suggests free associations. Anyway, you’re right about this being a difficult role, with inherent controversy. As for Sherlock S3, I have a feeling that it’s going to be more popular now than the previous two S’s. Thanks for stopping by the pond and throwing in your two pebbles. 😉


  5. I was hoping you wold see this movie and I was hoping it would be pretty good. Seems like both my hopes have come true! 🙂 And I am so glad to hear there is a date for Sherlock Season 3!


    1. Stefanie,

      O just watching BC is captivating. As a matter of fact, those critics who give the film a low rating have praised BC’s performance. I feel his counterpart, Daniel Brühl, is just as good. For me, it’s a watchable movie, enough to spark some thoughts. It won’t be getting any Oscar nods, but doesn’t mean we should just write it off.


  6. Assange really interests me. Like so many crusaders (like all of us, probably) it’s clear that his stated motives are mixed with the usual human foibles. On the other hand, between he and Snowden, a light has been shined on some very dark practices. All to the good, I think.

    Who knows? Now that a few folks like Angela Merkel have their dander up, the importance of the whistleblowers may become more clear.


    1. Linda,

      I’m curious to know what you think of the movie, for it also touches on the issue of, ironically, a possible result of leakage being the loss of privacy for certain people whose lives might be endangered. May not be the phone tapping of world leaders, but maybe in the quarter of a million diplomatic cables. It’s a dangerous world we’re living in, and ripple effects of one pebble can be far-reaching… for all sides.


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