Julian Assange is arguably the first true folk hero of the 21st century. Detested by the establishment he seeks to undermine and loved by the folk he is perceived to be championing, his actions have had momentous, far-reaching social impact, but The Fifth Estate doesn’t rise above the pedestrian in its dramatisation of key events in the first revolutionary media shift of the modern era.
So much has been written about Assange and Wikileaks in recent years that there is little need to discuss the film’s premise and story. The film focuses on the relationship between Assange and talented hacker and Assange right hand Daniel Domscheit-Berg (one of its main sources is his book Inside Wikileaks,), and the arc of the story follows the deterioration of their ‘us against the world’ partnership. Initially united in their determination to expose corporate and governmental villainy, they eventually become estranged over the exposure of people named in the cache of documents given to Wikileaks by U.S. serviceman Bradley Manning.
Benedict Cumberbatch captures Assange’s voice and body language perfectly, and demonstrates that he can ably carry a feature in his first leading role. His Assange is an eccentric egotist for whom the Wikleaks revolution in newsgathering and dissemination was a means to gain great personal power. Daniel Bruhl’s Domscheit-Berg functions as the conscience of the film, which isn’t surprising as his book (and thus his take on Assange) provides the narrative POV, but he doesn’t really have anything more to do than become increasingly disillusioned with Assange until he reaches an ethical breaking point.
The metaphorical use of heavy-handed fx sequences make the film feel dated rather than contemporary, and the only genuine suspense is built in to the film’s final section around the mainstream media’s simultaneous world-wide release of the leaked Manning documents.
More time is needed to provide perspective on Wikileaks’ impact on the media’s watchdog function versus the need for government secrecy. This efficient but uninspired work doesn’t provide any more insight into the issue than a television docudrama would.