The year is 2010 and inside the sleek glass offices of The Guardian the editor Alan Rusbridger (Peter Capaldi) is pleading with Bill Keller, the editor of the New York Times for more time. The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel are about to go live on an extraordinary joint story, Cablegate, the largest leak of classified material in history. The Americans jump the gun, the story goes live and within minutes there is one question on everyone’s lips. Who the hell are Wikileaks?
The Fifth Estate sets out to answer that question. Directed by Bill Condon (Chicago), written by former The West Wing writer Josh Singer and based on the books Inside Wikileaks: My time at the world’s most dangerous website by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by Luke Harding and David Leigh, The Fifth Estate focuses on the early years of Wikileaks.
We flash back to December 2007 where Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) meets Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) at a convention. Wikileaks means nothing to the event organisers and an aggravated, grandstanding Assange has to beg for a speaking slot on the programme. Daniel is soon beguiled by Assange’s fire and passion as he spells out Wikileaks’s ethos of freedom and transparency of information to a tiny handful of disinterested watchers. One man, possessed of a secret can bring down the mightiest of regimes but whistleblowers will only come forward if they can be confident that their identity will remain confidential. Wikileaks works by burying the information about the identity of the whistleblower under layer upon layer of complex code. The information given to them is then checked by “hundreds of volunteers” before being published.
The speech may not interest the handful of people in the room waiting for the next event to start but Domscheit-Berg buys Wikleaks’ strapline of “Courage is Contagious” hook, line & sinker. Soon enough Daniel quits his job and starts to neglect his girlfriend (a charming if underused Alicia Vikander) to dodge surveillance and spooks on his tail to aggressively pursue leaks with Assange ignoring danger signs such as Wikileaks code being nowhere near as secure as they think and Assange’s increasing paranoia and arrogance. The film tracks Wikileaks as it grows in notoriety and importance as they take down a corrupt Swiss bank (Julius Baer) through to the leak by Private Chelsea Manning of the infamous Collateral Murder video and Cablegate – the publishing of Afghanistan war logs and a quarter of a million classified US cables. Assange’s refusal to redact names from the cables is the last straw for Domscheit-Berg and as their friendship and partnership deteriorates Daniel commits the ultimate betrayal…
Daniel Domscheit Berg is our gateway character into the world of Wikileaks and Daniel Brühl is an appealing leading man. Daniel comes across as a likeable, highly principled man, utterly in thrall to Julian Assange until Assange’s apparent lack of concern over the safety of those named in the cables causes the scales to fall from his eyes. However he’s actually somewhat underused and it’s a bit of an ask to expect the audience to be as equally invested in his love life as they are in the appalling tales of corruption and misdeeds that Wikileaks uncovers.
The Fifth Estate is really the story of one man – Julian Assange and so it is only appropriate that Benedict Cumberbatch completely and totally dominates the movie as Assange. Sherlock may have bought Benedict to the attention of Hollywood but The Fifth Estate is where he becomes a bona fide leading man. His performance as Julian Assange is quite extraordinary. The physical transformation is impressive. With his white shock of hair and darker eyes he’s practically Assange’s double and he perfectly captures both the nasal twang of his Australian accent and his mannerisms from his awkward stooping walk to a pitch perfect recreation of his dancing. To call it an impersonation would be to do a profound disservice to Cumberbatch’s performance but the transformation is uncanny.
Personality wise Assange is impossible to get a handle on. He’s quick silver, as soon as you think you’ve got him sussed he pulls the rug out from under you. As portrayed by Cumberbatch Assange is magnetic, mercurial, arrogant, paranoid, fond of grandstanding, childish, twitchy, vulnerable, passionate, mischievous, charmingly seductive and funny. The script gives him a troubled background as a child of a cult and moments of intense emotion as he suffers losses of friends brave enough to stand up to a corrupt regime and flashes of vulnerability as the security services start to close their net around him. There is also a surprising element of mythos building as the script has Assange constantly re-inventing how his hair turned white in a manner eerily reminiscent of the Joker in The Dark Knight “Did I ever tell you how I got these scars?” I’m not sure we really know any more about the real Assange at the end of the film than we did at the beginning but in Cumberbatch’s hands at least it’s a highly compelling narrative. He even pulls off an extremely meta direct to camera address at the end with Assange roundly denouncing the film.
Elsewhere in the film we see the effect of Cablegate on the US military through the eyes of Laura Linney (playing a slightly softer version of the role played by Joan Allen in The Bourne Identity) and the always good value Stanley Tucci pops up for an extended cameo. The human cost of Assange’s quest for truth is played out in a compelling and tense (if apparently entirely fictional) subplot in Libya featuring Alexander Siddig.
The film is ably directed by Bill Condon. If it’s a little too fond of flashy computer graphics for it’s depiction of Wikileaks on-line world then at least we get some arresting images from it.
The Fifth Estate is a fast paced, compelling film anchored by a tour de force performance by Benedict Cumberbatch which raises fascinating questions about the need for transparency and accountability from sovereign states.
The Fifth Estate is released in the UK on 11 October 2013 and in the US on 18 October 2013. Check local listings for details.