The well publicised story of the rise and fall of Wikileaks has finally reached the big screen. The Fifth Estate follows the turbulent relationship of Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl) and Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) as they strive to reveal some of the world’s most hidden secrets.
Going in I was well aware of the divided reviews and didn’t really know what to expect. Yet extraordinarily considering these reviews and the polemic character that is Julian Assange the film was remarkably middle of the road. The first hour seems to meander through the initial meeting of Berg and Assange and the development of Wikileaks, alluding occasionally to the publication of specific secrets. Here there is also reference, albeit seemingly needlessly, to the relationship of Berg and Anke Domscheit (Alicia Vikander), an aspect that lacks any real development.
Despite reported pleas from Julian Assange himself to Benedict Cumberbatch not to take the role, it is Cumberbatch who shines. His portrayal of Assange is one of the real positives of this picture. Yet despite this, one never knows how to feel about the character due to an indecisive script. For example whilst the reference to The Family cult in Australia is seemingly aimed to gain sympathy, his egotism and refusal to redact the classified documents published turns us against him.
A reflection of the damage caused by this indecision is seen in the audience’s lack of emotional investment to the main characters. It is a worrying sign when I became more attached to a character that features for a maximum of ten minutes, Dr Tariq Haliseh (Alexander Siddig), and don’t to any of the major characters.
Personally, I expected a film on such a controversial issue to have an angle and be pro-Wikileaks or pro-America, yet this just seems to sit on the fence. The quote ‘courage is contagious’ is used a number of times in reference to those apart of, and providing information to, the whistle blowing organisation. Ironically however, courage is something that director Bill Condon seems to lack. Throughout there is a sense that the movie is constantly treading on egg shells so as not to offend either party, but this just has the effect of leaving everybody confused.
The constant hedging between interpretations of the roles of both Assange/Wikileaks and America prevents a real message at the end. Whether Assange should be viewed as an egotist or an innovator is something that is simply inadequately addressed. Benedict Cumberbatch’s line ‘If you want the truth, you have to seek it out yourself’ in the final interview, seems to appropriately summarise the films lack of agenda as a whole.
There will be those who argue that it is good that The Fifth Estate sits on the fence and doesn’t hold a bias. But in reality it just leads to a confused message and a film that spends the first hour meandering with no real direction. Taking nothing away from Benedict Cumberbatch’s excellent performance, this is one of those annoyingly average films that should have been so much better.