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The Fifth Estate

Blowing the Whistle on WikiLeaks?

Oct. 22, 2013
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Benedict Cumberbatch plays Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, the brisk dramatization of the WikiLeaks founder’s battle with the U.S. government (and everyone else he disdains). One of film’s great emerging actors, Cumberbatch gives a portrayal of the celebrity outlaw that will remind fans of his role as Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective in BBC-TV’s “Sherlock.” Both characters are piercingly intelligent, intolerant of wankers and determined to trump the guilty. Holmes is likable, however; Assange is not.

The Fifth Estate is largely based on the memoir of Assange’s disgruntled former adjutant, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, which acknowledges the moral imperative of whistleblowing while painting a bleak portrait of the world’s most notorious whistleblower. Domscheit-Berg is played by Daniel Brühl as a mild-mannered idealist finally pushed too far by the imperious master of WikiLeaks. Cumberbatch’s Assange is arrogant and deceitful, with an IQ of 200 and an EQ of 0, a führer rigged up as an anarchist.

If the screenplay seems to waver between sympathy and rebuke, it mirrors the many public responses to Assange. Domscheit-Berg’s account of his ex-boss may or may not be entirely correct—and surely the screenplay took artistic liberties—but it rings true on screen. The Assange of The Fifth Estate is a giant killer who wants to be a giant, a foe of tyrants who becomes the thing he hates. Assange, the fiery prophet of transparency, travels in a cloud of encryption. He’s paranoid (but with reason!). According to The Fifth Estate, nothing about Assange is entirely for real. Even his Andy Warhol hair is a dye job.

Directed with a sure sense of pacing by Bill Condon (Kinsey), The Fifth Estate includes visually impressive scenes mirrored in the backlit screens of laptops—with a hundred Assanges at work in a multiplicity reminiscent of The Matrix’s Agent Smith. The rhythm is keyed to WikiLeaks’ rapid rise from nothing to powerhouse. According to The Fifth Estate, Assange and a small but growing cadre began by taking on bad guys: a Swiss bank sheltering tax cheaters from the One Percent; the Chinese government during its brutal crackdown on Tibetan protesters; Scientology. Early on, Domscheit-Berg is concerned over Assange’s lack of concern for the collateral damage of lives jeopardized by his war on secrecy. When Assange leaks millions of State Department and Pentagon documents, he plays into U.S. hands by exposing Americans and their allies to harm, and possibly monkey wrenching delicate peace negotiations. If politics is like making sausage, Assange would gladly place a camera in the sausage works and stream the video.

The creepy aura of a cult leader has always accompanied Assange. In The Fifth Estate, he was victimized by his mother’s boyfriend’s cult as a young boy—beaten, starved and fed psychotropic drugs. He rebelled against the cult but organized WikiLeaks along similar lines, demanding unquestioning obedience from his followers, possessed by the demon of infallibility and justifying everything with a ready aphorism. In the movie, Assange rips the veil from nefarious government and corporate crimes in a crusade founded on moral absolutism and the zealotry of megalomania. Needless to add, Assange gives The Fifth Estate a thumbs down.


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