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New film: The Fifth Estate – one column, two opinions

The Fifth Estate
Directed by Bill Condon

Two (similar) opinions by Malcolm Maclachlan and Tony Sheppard

MM: I’d say this is a deeply flawed movie made intermittently compelling by profoundly interesting subject material and an excellent performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (yet another oddly-named Cumberbatch character who isn’t nearly as oddly-named as Benedict Cumberbatch).

TS: Agreed – the primary problem I had with this film is that the story being told onscreen seemed far less interesting than the story we’ve been told for years about the story being told onscreen. It’s a bad sign when you wonder if staying home and reading the Wikipedia page on WikiLeaks might have been more fulfilling.

MM: On the one hand, I was generally entertained. But I was looking for more than that. I felt like the film pulled its punches. It always felt like it was headed for a neat little ending. Near the end, when Guardian editor Nick Davies (David Thewliss) tries to sum up the brave new world we’re living in, it’s neither compelling nor insightful. This is paired with an “oh, by the way, the Arab Spring happened” footnote montage which explains little and fails to articulate Assange’s future presence in history textbooks.

TS: In general, the film seems heavy on the “this happened this way” content, whether accurate or not, and light on the “this is why we did it” aspect. When we first meet Assange, he’s already a mysterious character ducking from country to country, on even more mysterious funds, and we never get an especially good explanation of what drove or drives him. We’re told about a rough, cultish childhood – but there are many people who come from bizarre backgrounds who don’t end up attempting to fix voter fraud in Kenyan elections. We also get a version of the Guardian as not just recipients of the information, but also active facilitators or even champions of the process.

MM: One big choice the film makes is to try to focus on someone likeable. That person is Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Assange’s long-suffering hacker ally. The two repeatedly clash over how far to go to protect the sources and others named in the confidential documents WikiLeaks releases. Indeed, “The Fifth Estate” is largely based on Domscheit-Berg’s 2011 memoir Inside WikiLeaks, and he’s listed as one of the screenwriters.

TS: But one problem this presents is that, in telling Daniel’s story, the film causes you to wonder how much of the story is remembered the same way by others – especially in scenes where Daniel isn’t even present.

MM: Another problem is that he’s not nearly as compelling a character as Assange. Much of “The Fifth Estate” focuses on the frenemy relationship between the two men, with many scenes where Assange feels threatened and tries to push Domscheit-Berg out of the spotlight. These kept reminding me of how easily Cumberbatch/Assange pushes Domscheit-Berg out of the spotlight every time they share the screen.

TS: And this becomes one of the oddest aspects of the character of Assange being portrayed – again, whether or not it’s accurate. On the one hand he’s this crusading, hermit-like character, who mistrusts everybody and seems content hiding behind his own numerous online aliases – but at the same time he’s a huge attention whore as soon as it seems like people are predisposed to admire the work being done. He rapidly transitions from avoiding the spotlight to wanting to hog it, or suspecting others of attempting to pre-emptively hog it.

MM: Much of Assange’s self-image is based on the idea that he alone sees through the deceit and propaganda. After watching “The Fifth Estate,” I was left feeling like he might have a point. Cumberbatch plays him as an overgrown teenage boy with brain power bursting out of his skull. His unusual white-blond appearance, his broad Australian accent, his history as an abused child raised for a time in a cult, his early adult life as a hacker/squatter/anarchist…if you’d made up Assange as a fictional character, you might be accused of exaggerating.

TS: Yes – as a quasi-fictional character he starts to resemble a male version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” – brilliant, damaged, insightful, mistrusting, prone to manipulating his exterior appearance, etc., and intent on righting perceived wrongs. He’s almost a comicbook superhero reporter without an actual superpower, except perhaps his lack of consideration for those around him.

MM: Yet the focus repeatedly turns away from this guy towards the mild-manner Domscheit-Berg and his not very interesting love story. A film squarely-focused on the obnoxious, likely autistic Assange would have been a far more nerve-jangling experience than what we get here—and far, far more compelling. Cumberbatch could have carried it, too, despite the repeated objections from people who know Assange that the portrayal was too toned-down and likeable.

TS: In general, I’d be happy with more Cumberbatch all the time – but here the film needs more Assange, whether played by Cumberbatch or not. What we’re stuck with is a film that looks at Assange through the eyes of a character who apparently never really understood him – which doesn’t bode well for our chances of understanding him either.

MM: Assange doesn’t even walk onscreen until several minutes into the film. He strides into a hacker conference in Berlin, bullies his way onto the main stage, and while making a point about the interconnection of information, destroys the carefully-prepared presentation of the keynote speaker. Right when you think he’s just being a jerk, he follows up with a line about how most people don’t make history because they’re too worried about being liked.

TS: It’s reminiscent of the recent “Jobs” – another film that seemingly sets out to explain a character who was both brilliant and also polarizing, and who seemed to have as much of a flair for rubbing people the wrong way as for innovative thought.

MM: It’s a lesson director Bill Condon and the script-writers should have paid more attention to. There is a workmanlike approach to the “villain or hero?” question. WikiLeaks hurt a lot of people, but not necessarily very many innocent ones, while exposing far greater amounts of death and deceit. I was left with the feeling that the film fell prey to the same logical fallacies which leave human beings able to obsess over the fate of a single dog but unable to connect emotionally to the starvation of thousands of people in Africa. Because Assange is unable to connect emotionally to individual humans, he actually might be better equipped to undertake messy actions that benefit humanity.

TS: I left thinking that the film, in general, is a far better starting point for a far more interesting conversation than it is an actual good film in its own right. Although perhaps that, to some extent makes it good – if that was the intent. It raises the bigger questions of whistle-blowing and “citizen journalism” (the fifth estate of the title), without ever really pontificating on them. It’s like a story about a cat getting out of a bag that never mentions what happened to the cat once it was free. But if that’s all it was attempting to portray, a series of events that helped us to get to where we are now, then I suppose it’s somewhat successful, albeit surprisingly dull. And Condon is an interesting pick as a director – his films are all over the map, from prior true stories like “Kinsey” and the wonderful “Gods and Monsters,” to a couple of installments of the “Twilight” franchise.

MM: Like many histories, this one is compressed. Events months in the making appear to happen suddenly. Chelsea Manning, known as Bradley Manning during the time when she leaked immense of amounts of U.S. military and diplomatic communications, is mentioned in a single scene—in the context of being “emotionally disturbed” and getting busted by bragging about it on a chat room. All true. But it left me wondering why the person who may turn out to be one of the most important whistleblowers of all time, with a personal life story nearly as unusual as Assange’s, was left on the cutting room floor.

TS: Again, it’s a story told from the perspective of the least interesting person in the room – but a person who happened to write a book about being the least interesting person in the room. Which is a shame, because the acting from Daniel Brühl is solid, although not as impressive as his portrayal of Niki Lauda in the recent "Rush."

MM: This was also a great example of filmmaking that gets in the way of its material. Early on, we’re presented with the visual metaphor of the Internet as an infinite room filled with computers on desk. It only bothered me at first because I knew eventually the film was going to do something really stupid and distracting with that imagery—and sure enough, they did. I would have preferred something more stark and naturalistic.

TS: I’m surprised it took this long to get to this aspect of the film – the symbolism is just awful. It’s like computer and network technology being explained to the uninitiated by the equally uninitiated. And it adds nothing to the story. When Daniel is sitting in a storage closet at work, contributing to changing world events through his laptop, it isn’t made any more impressive by picturing him in an apparently snowy and bleak warehouse of vacant computer desks. It just detracts from the story, much of which is actually focused on how a few guys with relatively limited equipment, could do so much. A single guy with a computer sitting in the middle of a vast wasteland would have been more fitting. But I would have preferred neither.

MM: One thing “The Fifth Estate” does right is give Assange the last word. The globe-trotting hacker, after years of shuttling around Kenya and South Africa to the Burning Man-like hacker world of Europe, has spent over a year living in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Surely, despite the luxury, a hard experience for a man always seeking open spaces and shying away from close human contact. Cumberbatch, as Assange being interviewed, critiques the film in real time, in Assange’s own words. At one point he asks, grandiosely, “Which film? Oh, that one.” To which my brain replied, “Oh good, can we get another?”

TS: It’s a weird ending – an epilogue from the person who you want to be the lead character but who isn’t actually the author of the story. It’s like a final scene that dismisses everything that came before it. It was almost like he was staring at me and chastising me for not staying home and reading the Wikipedia entry on WikiLeaks after all.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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