The Fifth Estate

The word you would use to describe Benedict Cumberbatch (still can’t believe that is a real name) nowadays is “ubiquitous”.  The man is everywhere, cashing in on the fickle nature of fame before the day arises when suddenly he is no longer flavour of the month and has become old school, invited to appear in wry cameos and to give credibility to movies that once he would have rejected with a snort of derision.  In due course his band of female followers, called, I am told, the “Cumberbitches,” have moved on and remember fondly their days of treating him as a minor god.

In The Fifth Estate he is joined by another hot property in the form of Daniel Brühl, who made a more than decent fist of portraying Niki Lauda in Rush, and a host of other fine and worthy actors (Stanley Tucci, David Thewlis, Laura Linney, Peter Capaldi and more) to tell another real life story, that of the controversy surrounding Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, a subject that has stoked up global controversies and which leaves very few sitting on the fence.

Alas the moviemakers are somewhat coy about the subject matter, such that WikiLeaks gets but one minor mention on the DVD box, and Assange none at all.  This, we must presume, is the direct result of pressure from US authorities to avoid giving free publicity and a favourable portrayal of Assange, who remains persona non grata that side of the pond.  Was Assange happy about the movie?  No he certainly was not!

From Wikipedia:

On January 24, 2013, Assange claimed during a presentation of the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence—held at Oxford University— that he had read the screenplay of the film, describing it as a “serious propaganda attack on WikiLeaks and the integrity of its staff”, as a “lie built upon a lie”, and as “fanning the flames for war on Iran”: the opening scene was inside a putative military complex in Iran and nuclear symbols could be seen. Birgitta Jónsdóttir told the WikiLeaks official Twitter account, “the Iran scene has been written out, plus the name has been changed. Come with constructive ideas how to improve it”. Birgitta also tweeted that Assange does not possess the latest version of the script.

Although Julian Assange has described the film as a “massive propaganda attack”,  he did discuss the film with Benedict Cumberbatch, with Cumberbatch claiming that he’s “personally supportive” of the organization. Cumberbatch stated that, “No matter how you cut it, he’s done us a massive service, to wake us up to the zombielike way we absorb our news.” Since Assange has been living inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London under diplomatic asylum, he and Cumberbatch reportedly communicated via email during filming.

On September 21, 2013, a script, allegedly the film’s screenplay, was released by WikiLeaks, along with commentary labeling the film as “fiction masquerading as fact”. Both Assange and WikiLeaks have stated that neither DreamWorks nor Disney approached them for any consultation on the film.  Assange elaborated on the matter, “I don’t think we are in a situation anymore where an organization like DreamWorks or Disney can succinctly decide that it is going to produce a movie about living people, and living political refugees, and people who are embroiled in a grand jury proceeding in the United States, and just smear, without the cost.”

Granted Assange the person does not come out of this too well, notably through his paranoia and ruthless spite.  There is also some cod psychology by sometime sidekick Domscheit-Berg (one whose book the movie is based and which at the end of the movie is comprehensively rubbished by Assange as a fiction about WikiLeaks) suggesting among other things that the charismatic founder of the site dyes his hair as a result of the cult to which he was subjected by his parents as a child.  The greatest difference between the two concerns the redactions required legally by the Guardian to protect the informants, the innocent victims whose names would otherwise be exposed, putting them at risk of their lives.

Hatchet job?  Not quite.  It lacks the credentials to be a character assassination, especially when Thewlis’s character points to the counterbalancing effect of a revolution in information, superseding the 4th estate of the press and the impact of what Assange has done.  Vive the 5th Estate – the anarchic principle whereby everybody should have access to the truth at all times and not be hoodwinked by governments or corporations.

My standpoint is that WikiLeaks as a platform has done the world a great service by revealing things that should not be hidden – notably corruption and the evils of war – and that transparency is the mark of good democratic government.  If it is a revolution that can sweep away the worst excesses of war, diplomacy and secrecy then we will all benefit, but there is a very long way to go.

But for these purposes I will put aside the politics of the movie and consider it solely on its merits as a form of entertainment, albeit one in which real people are featured like puppets on a string. After all, if the movie is so manifestly a travesty and unbalanced in favour of US government propaganda, it should surely come over as a diatribe?

Director Bill Condon had a tightrope to walk in getting the balance right.  It’s possible he could have made a stodgy historical drama-doc, but in deference to his audience what he gives us instead is a superficially whizzy confused and confusing melée of images that make the movie look more like a pop promo and distract from the core purpose.  These include various use of graphics to portray global communications, screen effects to demonstrate multiple concurrent actions, voguish jerky hand-held camera that will make many viewers feel seasick, and constant changes of location displayed on screen as the action flits around the world.  On this framework he superimposes snatches of dialogue, much of it by phone, computer text littered with technical jargon from over the shoulders of characters as they tap away on their laptops, plus the odd piece of real life war action to illustrate the pseudonymous leaks as they arrive.

You could argue Condon is throwing down a challenge to his audience by making a movie to reflect the nature of the speed of Internet communications, though whether this respects the intelligence of the average viewer or simply bores him/her is debatable.  For me the bottom line is much simpler: I found the movie tiresome to watch and certainly nothing like as engaging a real-life thriller as is purports to be.   It did not hold my attention and I did not much care about the characters or their dramatised conflicts – a sad state of affairs when the content is the biggest leak of classified information in history.

Ultimately, I did not gain any tension or thirst for knowing what happens next, nor especially any additional insight.  What is truth and what is fiction ceases to matter because it is obscured behind the stylistic effects.  Just think how Hitch would have made this movie – certainly he would have made every scene count and not be forgotten in the welter of information being hurled from the screen.

Shame, since Cumberbatch, Brühl and the entire ensemble create between them a sustainably excellent job of characterisation, and the script itself is eloquently written, were the director to allow sufficient time for the sentiments to be appreciated.  In case we lose sight of it, this is without question a subject worthy of serious debate on screen, though I can’t help feeling there were much better ways to do it.

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