In The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s Joker toyed with potential victims, asking them if they’d like to know how he got his facial scars, then repeatedly, sociopathically changing his anecdotal answer. In The Fifth Estate, Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) isn’t rendered quite so madly as to be compared to a nihilistic comic-book villain, but he’s assigned a markedly similar habit, constantly cooking up different, dubious stories about why his hair is white. The film goes on to draw what appears to be its own far-fetched conclusion, and pairs it with another character’s assertion that “you need a man obsessed with his own secrets to reveal those of others.” In actuality, such is merely what this manic movie thinks it needs, so it can lazily apply a weirdo motive to the actions of its complex, quasi-antagonist. In a rather unsubtle way, The Fifth Estate is guilty of some of the same quick judgment it clearly doesn’t endorse, following in the footsteps of right-wingers and, ultimately, the U.S. government, by exploiting Assange’s unmistakable appearance to help give itself a boogeyman.
Which isn’t to say the movie takes definitive sides. Largely, it assumes a position that seems to be the popular one, regarding Assange as the embodiment of the government-transparency issue, which has become as ethically contentious as abortion. But even getting to a place where the issue can be explored, with genuine interest, takes ages in The Fifth Estate. If anything, the guys with Joker-ish urges here are writer Josh Singer and director Bill Condon, who both arduously favor chaos over clarity. Roughly the whole first half of the film is insufferably frenetic, hurtling from city to city and headline to headline as it rushes to cram in the bullet points of WikiLeaks’ beginnings. Covering the downfall of an Icelandic bank and the release of Sarah Palin’s emails, but never lingering on an issue long enough to let its weight sink in, Singer seems stumped as to how to convey this story’s great mess of data, and Condon insists on underlining the narrative failings with his falsely urgent aesthetic. The Fifth Estate is rife with techno-fied images of overlapping codes, web pages, and documents, all of which become symbolic of this movie’s buried soul, a flaw that especially deflates the doomed, yet pivotal, friendship of Assange and partner Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl).
It’s not until the reveal of the landmark leaks from Chelsea Manning (neé Bradley) that The Fifth Estate even starts to feel like a taut and substantive high-stakes thriller. Beginning with the still-shocking video of American gunmen shooting Reuters reporters and Iraqi civilians, and continuing with the 250,000-plus U.S. diplomatic cables, the late-in-the-game leaks unite the film’s vast ensemble of characters, from British journalist Nick Davies (David Thewlis) and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger (Peter Capaldi) to State Department bigwig Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney) and her embedded contact, Tarek Haliseh (Alexander Siddig). They also unearth the capricious morals of Assange, who’s as stoked about incoming web traffic and donations as he is about spreading the truth.
Every movement needs a fearless radical, and many would argue that Assange paved the way for future regime-challengers like Edward Snowden. But one thing The Fifth Estate doesn’t grasp, and that Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets did, is that, in the end, the most compelling figure in the story of WikiLeaks isn’t Assange, but Manning. And while an ideal film would be one with Manning as lead and Assange, his conduit, in support, Singer and Condon could have at least employed a more editorial eye, narrowing their focus to where this saga truly erupts.
Ironically, the issue of fine-tuning, and old-media editorial practices, figure heavily into Assange’s downfall. Though he’s already wanted in Sweden for sexual assault (a scandal to which The Fifth Estate merely alludes), things really go south for the movie’s white-haired, marquee eccentric when he insists on publishing all of Manning’s intel, unredacted, as opposed to taking a page from The Guardian or The New York Times and protecting potentially endangered innocents. The film’s commentary on the changing state of media often feels outdated, but this particular argument, about the value of filters in the media and beyond, is rightfully provocative. The Fifth Estate could have certainly used some filtering before going public. As is, it’s much like the WikiLeaks inbox during its heyday: busy, flooded, and ready to crash.