The Movie Date is a weekly feature where we discuss movies that may appeal to YA readers. Andrew is The Reading Date’s resident movie critic and this week he discusses The Fifth Estate, a fall 2013 film directed by Bill Condon.
An earnest German hacker falls under the spell of Julian Assange; as Wikileaks publishes increasingly dangerous information, the hacker begins to question his mentor’s ethics.
I’d been eager to see Benedict Cumberbatch play Assange, a clever and complex man seen variously as an info-terrorist and a data-age Robin Hood. Since Cumberbatch plays the confident, arrogant “smartest guy in the room” as Sherlock on the BBC series, he seemed like a natural fit for a similar role as Assange. At the time the film got middling reviews (mostly praising Cumberbatch’s performance) so I skipped it, but I’m glad I circled back now that it’s on DVD; I thought the picture was excellent, frankly.
As with so many films about larger than life heroes, we see the visionary leader through the eyes of a mere mortal. In this case we follow Berlin IT expert Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) as he meets Assange at a hacker’s conference in Berlin. Convinced by the man’s cause and caught up in his charisma, Berg joins his unseen legion of volunteers in sharing anonymously provided secrets. With their first big “win”—an exposé of shady dealings by a Swiss bank—Wikileaks catches the press’ attention and public awareness. Meanwhile, struggling to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend as the website demands more of his time, Berg makes an astounding discovery: Wikileaks has no other volunteers supporting it; the entire organization is just him and Assange. As the site grows in notoriety, it receives a massive leak of US government communications regarding the Iraq and Afghan wars. When Berg warns Assange that the documents could put lives of informants and agents at risk, Assange is unconcerned. And Berg starts to wonder: just what is this man made of, anyway?
For some reason I was expecting a very Sherlock-like performance out of Cumberbatch—confident, assertive, articulate, well-groomed—and was surprised at how the actor had transformed himself. With his swooping mane of white hair, spotty complexion, and distant gaze, he looks the part of an overworked mega-hacker. More to the point, he really brings out Assange’s dualities: withdrawn yet charismatic, honest yet secretive, cold yet compassionate, selfless yet self-aggrandizing. In the excellent documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (which makes a nice double-bill with this film), Assange comes across as baffling and enigmatic; The Fifth Estate goes a long way towards decoding his very unusual personality.
The film itself is thrillingly presented; Assange and Berg inhabit a sleek, modern world of corporate glass, nightclub neon, and café warmth, contrasting with occasional squatter squalor. Hacker stories can suffer from too many scenes of people pounding away at laptops, and certainly there’s some of that here. But abstract ideas of information flow and data encryption are explained through clever visual metaphors; the shadowy Wikileaks organization is shown as a dark, imaginary office complex with an unknown number of employees. The film provides plenty of thrills you don’t have to be a geek to appreciate.
In real life, Berg and Assange’s relationship did have a beginning, middle, and end, and the film follows this arc satisfyingly. Because the film is based on a book by Berg, Assange has condemned it as propaganda, even publishing a leaked screenplay on the website. But privately he and Cumberbatch exchanged emails regarding the role, and it shows in the actor’s fascinating, complex portrayal. The film’s definitely worth a look, if only to see another side of the Sherlock you know and love.
The Fifth Estate has just come out on DVD, but won’t be available on Netflix for a few weeks. So check your local library for a copy. While you wait, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks is available now on Netflix streaming and is a great primer for the film. You should also check out the excellent film Underground: The Julian Assange Story, a dramatized version of Assange’s adventures as a teen hacker decades ago. It includes events that are referred to in The Fifth Estate and is a helpful key to Assange’s personality. It plays like a hybrid of War Games and The Falcon and the Snowman and is also available on Netflix Watch Instantly.
The Fifth Estate is rated R and runs 128 min.