Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate educates, thrills, and morally conflicts in the most compelling of ways. It is a film that contains no easy answers, instead asking us to meticulously comb through the information given and decide if the often immoral actions taken by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange justify his goal of full, honest disclosure. Like Kathryn Bigalow’s masterful Zero Dark Thirty, Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer never hand-hold or try to manipulate the audience’s sense of right versus wrong versus necessary. This is especially true in The Fifth Estate‘s final moments, in which we are encouraged — but never forced — to step away from the film, pilfer through whatever informational resources are available to us, and come to our own conclusions about the man who threatened to dismantle governments all across the globe with just a few keystrokes. Far from a simple ripped-from-the-headlines drama, The Fifth Estate is a global, spine-tingling political thriller with something important to say. In movie terms, The Fifth Estate offers up the best ingredients from The Social Network and The Bourne Trilogy: intelligence and unending suspense. And as the enigmatic Julian Assange, high-rising star Benedict Cumberbatch stuns with a career-best performance that should be at the top of every Oscar voter’s mind before submitting their year-end ballots.
Condon’s movie appropriately begins by taking us on a brief historical journey through time, starting in the 15th century when the printing press was invented, and moving all the way to the modern, digitally dependent era. The key thing to remember is the shift of power caused by the printing press. It resulted in the creation of an offshoot of commoners — known as “the press” — who informed their fellow citizen of state affairs via government correspondence. But more often than not, what was fed to the masses was calculated propaganda meant to put a rightfully skeptical society at ease. The real secrets and misdeeds of a country’s government were being withheld from the public, and it wasn’t until hundreds of years later that the fortresses of duplicity finally began collapsing. Thanks to groundbreaking information technology that defines our digital age, a new type of media has emerged, a so-called “fifth estate.” This evolved media that answers to no one can go through back-channels and expose the atrocities committed by various governments, even ones considered peaceful and non-threatening.
One such individual spearheads this new movement in journalism. Australian blogger, hacker, and online activist Julian Assange becomes the king of the “fifth estate” in a span of three years (2007-2010), as his WikiLeaks site becomes the go-to for all conspiracy exposés. Assange gathers his information from whistle-blowers that reveal secrets about any and all entities of worldly influence (governments, multi-million dollar companies, etc) so long as Assange protects their anonymity. Assange does this by uploading fake data into WikiLeaks’ submission system while the information (usually PDF documents) is being transferred to him, making it nearly impossible for anyone to pinpoint the source’s location or identity. Julian hopes that by publishing such damning information, the oblivious citizens of the world (which is pretty much every person not making seven figures a year) can be galvanized into rebelling against their oppressive regimes. While not a full-blown anarchist, Julian clearly feels that drastic action much be taken in order to rebuild this broken, unfair world for the betterment of all. Sacrifices, Julian feels, are essential to the endgame.
As the film begins, Julian is literally a one-man organization, one that’s poorly funded and in dire need of some connections to expensive, up-to-date technology. But in order to reel in prospective investors, Julian knows WikiLeaks has to appear as if it’s an omnipotent, all-seeing presence — a Bigger Brother watching Big Brother. Through duplicitous means, Julian successfully convinces one potential investor to carry the torch of justice alongside him: a German programmer by the name of Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl). After Daniel becomes so enamored by Julian’s heroic and tenacious demeanor during their initial meeting at a computer conference, he agrees to partner up and the two subsequently take the world by storm. Their commitment to global do-goodery keeps their working relationship at a honeymoon level of happiness until Daniel’s professional life begins to conflict with his personal one, specifically his relationship with headstrong girlfriend Anke (Alicia Vikander). Vikander, who broke out in 2012’s A Royal Affair, doesn’t have much to offer to The Fifth Estate’s overall narrative but makes the most of her short time on-screen. Vikander radiates confidence and rationality as Anke, a young woman with a steely disposition, who looks liars in the face and calls them out. I can see how the character may be grating to some, especially since she is quick to shoot down Julian’s character whenever Daniel tries to point out his noble traits. But as someone who acts as Daniel’s conscience when his own is being clouded by the unlimited power of WikiLeaks, Anke’s guiding presence in the film is more than appreciated.
What a great year Daniel Brühl has had. To nobody’s surprise, The Fifth Estate serves as another fine example of the Spanish-German actor’s talent. Brühl could have played Domscheit-Berg as the typical whiny, righteous journalist type we see in so many films of this nature. But Brühl creates a fascinating portrayal of his own that nearly stands toe to toe with Cumberbatch’s Assange concoction. Between this and Rush, Brühl has mastered the art of on-screen rivalry. The further along the film goes, the more Daniel’s relationship with Assange begins to implode, turning inward as the two slowly begin to realize they aren’t on the same page when it comes to the purpose of WikiLeaks. Julian Assange is the Walter White to Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s Jesse Pinkman. The former is a man who takes full-measures and doesn’t think twice about the dangerous consequences of his actions. While Daniel is just as ambitious — and often as ruthless — as Julian, he’s mainly a half-measure type of guy who won’t corrupt his soul for the sake of unfiltered, unedited truth. The duo’s fracture is caused by the biggest scandal ever brought to WikiLeaks: 251,287 diplomatic cables that reveal — among other classified information — the identities of U.S. spies scattered throughout most of the world. Government officials Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney) and James Boswell (Stanley Tucci) try their best to control the impending damage by sneaking one of their operatives (Alexander Siddig) out of Egypt. These side plots give the entire film a sense of far-reaching importance. Besides Tucci (who, let’s be honest, could’ve been played by any starving actor), the familiar ensemble cast makes the occasional break from the riveting Assange well worth it.
In closing, I leave you with my thoughts on the biggest strengths of The Fifth Estate: Bill Condon and Benedict Cumberbatch. Condon compacts so much into the film, from various locales to intriguing subplots that could’ve been their own TV episodes, that one imagines all this influx of information, history and story could overwhelm. But it doesn’t. Condon has such a tight grip over the material that its execution is effortless, moving at a lyrical pace that compels us to keep watching and learning the more we absorb. It’s apparent that Condon worked closely with editor Virginia Katz — the pair pieced together a film that is in constant motion, trying to catch its breath before we catch ours. Did I also mention the superb cross-cutting and jump cut techniques on display? As far as craftsmanship goes, The Fifth Estate is at the top of its game in the field, particularly editing.
And finally, I have to save my biggest applause for Benedict Cumberbatch, who I can tell did everything in his thespian powers to portray the highly-complex Assange as humanely as possible. He completely succeeded on this front. Although you may find yourself appalled by Assange’s actions, Cumberbatch’s sincere and determined portrayal helps you understand the reasoning behind Assange’s motivations. Cumberbatch’s emphasis of Assange’s natural ability to improvise on the fly helped me overcome some of the frustrations I had with the ease in which Assange travels from place to place, especially considering WikiLeaks is a non-profit organization. Cumberbatch as Assange is more than just a scene-stealer; he’s a film hijacker! He takes this incredible once-in-a-lifetime role and dominates the film with an aura of subtle authority. Just like Assange, Cumberbatch demands attention and without question earns it. Cumberbatch is Assange, in his voice, in his idiosyncrasies, and in his reactions to the forces trying to bring down his empire. It’s difficult to imagine a more dedicated performance to a still-living person than Cumberbatch as Assange. Big studio-produced or not, Cumberbatch will always go right to the truth of the character he plays.
Disney and DreamWorks’ The Fifth Estate opens nationwide this Friday, October 18th. Be sure to check it out, as it’ll probably go down as one of 2013’s most underrated films. Take a look at the trailer below.