THE FIFTH ESTATE. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruehl, Morris Bleibtreu, Carice van Houten, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney, David Thewlis, Dan Stevens, Peter Capaldi, Anthony Mackie.Directed by Bill Condon. 128 minutes. Rated M (Violence and coarse language).
A film about Julian Assange. It is presumed that everybody knows who he is and what he has done.
Some key quotes from the film: “a mad prophet who needs boundaries”, “a manipulative asshole”, “a media empire that is accountable to no one”, and Assange himself says at one stage “I dangle at the edge of autism”. They are useful in helping the audience to assess Assange as a person, his personal relationships, his relationship with those who worked with him, his technical skills, the work of WikiLeaks, and the changes in attitude from 2007 to 2009. There is also a mention of “ego”.
Already in 2012-2013, there were two films made about Assange. One was a television film, Underground, made in Australia by Robert Connolly, about Assange and his family life, and the initial hacking into official American sites. It ended when he was about 20. Then there was the extensive documentary by Alex Gibney, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. The Fifth Estate runs parallel to the Gibney documentary in its presentation of Assange.
The film opens in 2009 with the release of extensive documents which embarrassed many governments around the world, especially the United States, but also officials in such countries as Kenya, with stories of corruption and killings. The film then moves back to 2007, Assange and the beginnings of WikiLeaks, his attempts to make his work public, his finding Daniel Schmitt (in fact, Daniel Berg) who shared his idealism, worked constantly with him at great personal cost and financial cost in the early years of WikiLeaks.
Benedict Cumberbatch bears a significant resemblance to Assange and is made up accordingly, especially his white hair, which he makes something of in passing but which emerges as something the children in the sect to which he belonged as a child had to do. He is imperious in his manner, brooking no position opposition. He severely lacks interpersonal skills, riding roughshod over people in word and manner. But he does persuade people to share his vision, to become volunteers, to staff the sites, to protect them, and so not reveal sources for WikiLeaks and the whistleblowing.
Daniel Bruehl is very good as Schmitt, serving as Assange’s anchor and checking fact and fiction. Moritz Bleibtreu is Marcus, friend of Schmitt, a hacking expert who is able to protect WikiLeaks. However, it is well known that Assange fell out with Schmitt, dismissing him, accusing him of disloyalty. Then, it was his Schmitt’s decision, along with his hacking friend, to close down WikiLeaks.
Audiences will be on side with Assange in the early years, especially as he reveals the conspiracies and atrocities in Kenya, and, especially, as he reveals the footage of helicopter pilots in Iraq gunning down innocent civilians as well as a Reuters correspondent. This brings him to the notice of the American State Department and the CIA, officials in the film played by Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie.
With the extraordinary documents coming through, thousands of them, about American activity in Afghanistan, supplied by Bradley Manning who is briefly seen in newspaper photographs in the film, the newspapers become involved, especially Germany’s Der Speigel, the United States New York Times, the British Guardian.
This brings to a head the conflict with some of Assange’s friends and himself, his principle of publishing everything, while others urged a redaction of the documents, removing personal names for the safety of informers. There is a scene to illustrate this with a contact from Libya whose name is published and who has to escape to Egypt and to the US with his family.
The film raises issues of ethics in publication, the need for truth, for honest expression, but with more nuances than Assange wants to think about. This brings him into conflict, not only with governments, but with some of the editors of the newspapers. He is warned that there will be publicity against him, all kinds of rumours circulated, and audiences are familiar with the accusations of sexual misconduct in Sweden.
The film ends with some discussion by the British about Assange, his ambitions, and the availability of all news instantly online, the new fifth estate. This is a film which will divide audiences, upset those who favour Assange (and this was true of Assange himself who contacted Benedict Cumberbatch urging him not to do the film) and those who might have favoured him initially but who, like his associates, found him to autocratic, an extraordinary controller of every aspect of WikiLeaks, and, one is tempted to use the word, a narcissist.
But, in his work is in the public domain, he is a celebrity-figure of his own making, a crusader who did a lot of good, and ambitious man who, as the film ends, and at the time of the film’s release, is still resident in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. While the story will be continued, it has been stalled a long time inside that embassy.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 2013.