Earlier this month, WikiLeaks launched a pre-emptive strike of sorts when it published a letter from the organization's founder, Julian Assange, to Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Assange in Bill Condon's biopic The Fifth Estate.
Cumberbatch had asked if the two could meet, but Assange declined, saying in the letter that a meeting would "validate this wretched film, and endorse the talented, but debauched, performance that the script will force you to give."
"I believe you are a good person," Assange wrote to the British actor, "but I do not believe that this is a good film."
With a minor edit, that could work as a blurb for The Fifth Estate's poster: "Benedict Cumberbatch is a great actor, but this is not a great film."
As a working journalist, I have a bias toward movies that make journalism the hero, and perhaps a stronger inclination than most to be drawn into the tension surrounding the ethics of redaction. Even still, I found The Fifth Estate somewhat lacking. It’s not “wretched,” but it fails to convey the drama and intrigue of the events it portrays.
Based in part on former WikiLeaker Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s book Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website, Condon’s film is a WikiLeaks origin story told through the relationship between Assange (Cumberbatch) and Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl). The film shows several of their early escapades in exposing the powerful — publishing documents that suggest the Swiss bank Julius Baer was involved in tax evasion and money laundering in the Cayman Islands, revealing the membership list of the British National Party. The story culminates with the release of Collateral Murder, the now-famous footage of Baghdad airstrikes in 2007 in which two Reuters journalists were killed, and the publication of hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic cables.
While the film mostly declines to take a side, our choices are essentially Assange (an almost spiritual figure, but is it prophet or cult leader?), the U.S. government (a cartoonish bunch in this portrayal, perhaps not far from the truth), or the Mainstream Media outlets, specifically The Guardian. As we all know by now, the government is decidedly against disclosure, while Assange and the regular media are generally for it, though they differ on the particulars of how it should be done. If one side comes out looking better, it’s probably the MSM.
The Fifth Estate has been compared to 2010’s The Social Network, albeit not favorably. Both have drawn criticism from their subjects, although The Fifth Estate does grant Assange a chance to respond by way of a closing scene in which Cumberbatch-as-Assange discusses “the WikiLeaks movie” with an interviewer. (The scene is somewhat out of place, but interesting nevertheless.)
It’s also true that both films have partners-in-crime-or-something-like-it at their center: the asshole geniuses (Zuckerberg and Assange) and their sidekicks, who find out in the end that this song ain’t about them. But while David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s film made a Shakespearean drama out of Facebook's creation that is also a film about a generation, Condon has reduced the literally world-changing — and some would indeed say heroic — antics of WikiLeaks to boilerplate.
What is remarkable is Cumberbatch’s performance as the white-haired, dangerously charismatic Assange. Anyone who’s seen an interview with the man himself will immediately recognize his mannerisms, both verbal and physical. Beyond that, an assessment of Cumberbatch’s impression is probably best left to the staff of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where Assange has been granted asylum. What matters to the viewer is that Cumberbatch creates a character so engrossing that you can imagine a gripping version of the film in which he simply reads thousands of diplomatic cables.
No doubt, this is what Assange was worried about — that his story as told by a turncoat, then brilliantly acted by Cumberbatch, would be culturally calcified as The Story of WikiLeaks (as is undoubtedly the case with Facebook and The Social Network for many people). Fortunately for Assange, and less so for Cumberbatch, the film’s debut weekend suggests that not nearly enough people will see The Fifth Estate for that to be much of a concern.