Julian Assange and The Fifth Estate: Wiki Wacky Who?

The Bill Condon bio-pic is the film equivalent of celebrity journalism, revealing more about Assange's quirks than the content of his scoops

  • Share
  • Read Later
Frank Connor / DreamWorks

With Julian Assange a refugee in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since June 2012, what’s his whistle-blowing website been up to? Well, last year WikiLeaks published the Syria files — more than 2 million emails and papers from Bashar Assad‘s government — and a hundred or so classified files from the U.S. Defense Department revealing its policy on detainees at Guantanamo and elsewhere. This year WikiLeaks released CIA and State Department documents from the 1970s, including secret cables from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Just last Wednesday it posted a new installment of its Spy Files 3 project, detailing the internal workings of European companies specializing in surveillance technology. That’s corporate spying to you, or maybe on you.

All very noteworthy, and newsworthy. But WikiLeaks hasn’t received the attention that a few years ago made it arguably the top source for exposés of government and industrial corruption. The Iraq and Syria War Logs, which the site obtained from U.S. Army analyst Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, made news around the world, thanks in part to the editorial validation of The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel.

(READ: James Poniewozik on the Bradley and Chelsea Manning story)

But that was in 2010, so very long ago that it makes Assange and the site he founded seem almost nostalgic. The same with The Fifth Estate, the fun, zippy, ultimately empty new portrait of the wired wonder from Down Under. The Toronto Film Festival’s opening-night attraction, it comes to U.S. movie houses Oct. 18.

Directed by Bill Condon — who made  his name in bio-pics (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey) before going old Broadway with Dreamgirls and young-adult with the last two Twilight movies — The Fifth Estate crams a spanning-the-globe crash course in international politics into the crevices of a lopsided bromance. As Aaron Sorkin’s script for The Social Network traced the spiral of admiration into disillusionment in the relationship of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his colleague Eduardo Saverin, so The Fifth Estate treats the collaboration of Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and fellow hacker-activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl). Domscheit-Berg’s memoir of Assange and WikiLeaks is one of the sources for the script by Josh Singer, who had written for Sorkin’s TV series The West Wing.

(READ: TIME’s review of The Social Network)

They meet in Berlin in 2007 and quickly become, in Assange’s words, “an army of two” — rather, an army of one Supreme Commander and one devoted, obliging grunt. In a great shot, Assange is seen working at his computer in a huge office; track slowly back, and all the desks are manned by Assanges. Using a myriad of false IDs to make WikiLeaks appear fully staffed, he is everywhere and everyone. What upsets Daniel is that Julian may be a genius, but he’s no gentleman. He disses Daniel’s parents and barges in on his affair with the lovely Anke (Sweden’s Alicia Vikander, the young charmer in the Keira Knightley Anna Karenina). The Mandarin and the mensch are bound to collide and, when they do, WikiLeaks briefly crashes with them.

Tall, drawling and white-maned (he has dyed his hair ever since being inducted into an Australian cult as a child), Assange radiates a star quality that impresses all spectators, especially himself. He gave WikiLeaks a charismatic face, got more coverage for the site’s reports, including the cover of TIME, even as his prima-donna personality often upstaged the news he was making. In the movie he complains that the media concentrates less on stories about corruption in Kenya than about “how weird I am.” At the end of the film he says that the Internet age gives power to anyone with a grievance and some evidence to back it up. “It’s all about you,” he proclaims, indirectly alluding to TIME’s 2006 Person of the Year (You). A pause and a smile. “And a little about me too.”

(READ: TIME’s 2010 cover story on Julian Assange

The movie is all about him, and thus about Cumberbatch. The actor, who brought his upper-class hauteur to TV’s Sherlock Holmes and as the revived Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, manages to occupy, glamorize and parody Assange. He is a mix of tics and grandeur, a creature apart and above, both worldly and otherworldly. No one so conscious of his own legend, and so practiced in promoting it, is likely also to be a decent, caring human being. That is Daniel, at least in this movie made from his book. But nice doesn’t make for scintillating cinema, not when naughty is there to steal every scene.

(READ: Corliss’s take on Benedict Cumberbatch in Star Trek Into Darkness)

Singer and Condon offer a little sympathy for the Devil with occasional references to his peculiar upbringing: his time with the cult known as The Family, and the revelation that he was in his twenties before he met his birth father. He also mentions that he has a 19-year-old son named… Daniel, suggesting a paternal affection for Domscheit-Berg (who is only seven years younger than Assange). Having established the father-son connection, The Fifth Estate then casts Julian as Darth Vader to Daniel’s Luke Skyhacker, dueling not with light sabers but with computer strokes. In the process, the impact of WikiLeaks is reduced to a workplace drama about a brilliant boss who mistreated his one wonderful employee.

Told in a jazzy, chaotic style that throws computer algorithms and text messages on the screen, and with dialogues that the camera keeps swiveling and jerking to catch up with, The Fifth Estate means to be both a filmic and an Internet experience. But it’s really an old-fashioned falling-out-of-love story, as seen from Domscheit-Berg’s perspective. It upends Assange’s battle cry of “Privacy for the individual, transparency for the institutions,” and reveals more about the founder’s quirks than about the content of his scoops. It’s the film equivalent of celebrity journalism. Which, some would say, is no journalism at all.