Is Julian Assange a hero or a creep? Going into The Fifth Estate, I entertained both opinions about the founder of WikiLeaks. However, this biopic about the polarizing Australian blogger does better than split the difference. It goes deeper, painting a portrait of a man who’s a hero precisely because he’s a creep whose repressed childhood in an abusive religious cult has taught him to assume the worst about human nature. A crusader for the truth who takes refuge in compulsive lying, the Assange we see here is a paranoid control freak who sees other people solely as resources to be exploited. Benedict Cumberbatch’s repellent yet fascinating lead performance makes all this palpable.
The movie picks up at a tech conference in Berlin in 2007, where Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl), a journalist for Der Spiegel with a flair for programming, is inspired by a sparsely attended speech given by Julian Assange (Cumberbatch) about how today’s technology could usher in a new age of social justice and governmental transparency. A prematurely white-haired human rights activist who has worked for democracy in Kenya, Julian lets Daniel in on his little secret: a network of informants and whistle-blowers who have just tipped him off to a Swiss bank that’s hiding criminals’ fortunes in offshore accounts. Off they go, dodging spies across Europe and using their laptops to expose embarrassing truths about China, Japan, Russia, Iran, Egypt, Great Britain, and the United States, while American officials (Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, and Anthony Mackie) are left to deal with the fallout.
You’re most likely to have seen Cumberbatch — a 37-year-old British actor with a Dickensian name, wide-set eyes, and searing intelligence — as the villain in Star Trek Into Darkness, though his fans know him better for starring in British TV’s Sherlock. (Said fans call themselves “Cumberbitches,” a fact I mention solely so I can get that word into this paper.) True to this character, he never begs for the audience’s sympathy and dives straight into Julian’s stiff-backed sense of morality that will galvanize his followers and his ideological zeal that will eventually drive everyone away. Julian is oblivious enough to walk in on Daniel as he’s about to have sex with his girlfriend (Alicia Vikander) and demand help in posting the latest documents about Kenyan government death squads. (“Do you have any more of that disgusting energy drink? It’s gonna be a long night.”) Even more revealing is a scene when Julian visits Daniel’s loving parents in Germany. Cumberbatch’s twitching speaks volumes as Julian finds this comfortable middle-class home unbearably prison-like.
The film is based on two similarly titled books, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website by the real Daniel Berg (who has since changed his surname to Domscheit-Berg) and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding. Director Bill Condon is a writer by trade but didn’t write the script, and he has taken great care with the script by Josh Singer, a former staff writer on TV’s The West Wing and Fringe. Too much, in fact. The story’s momentum bogs down as Daniel resorts to speechifying to try to keep Julian’s messianic ego from spiraling out of control, though the speeches are delivered well by Brühl (bespectacled, bearded,
and looking much handsomer than he did in Rush). Condon also turns in a recurring and remarkably tinny visual metaphor for WikiLeaks, depicting it as an open-plan office with Julian and Daniel sitting at all the desks. The clunkiest moments are sloughed off on David Thewlis as a reporter for The Guardian who goes on at length about how WikiLeaks is giving birth to a brave new world of journalism.
The movie ends with Cumberbatch’s Julian addressing the camera directly and denouncing the movie that we’re watching as a pack of lies. The fact that the real Assange has done the same thing jibes with everything The Fifth Estate tells us about this man waging a lonely and uncompromising war against the modern security state. This unlikable and even monstrous man is perfectly suited to serving as a bulwark against the self-serving lies that governments and corporations feed to the world. Capturing this person in all his complexity is this film’s — and Benedict Cumberbatch’s — singular achievement.
The Fifth Estate
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl. Directed by Bill Condon. Written by Josh Singer, based on Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s book and David Leigh and Luke Harding’s book. Rated R.