TIFF13: The Fifth Estate (2013)

The Fifth Estate, Bill Condon’s Wikileaks film, is the first real disappointment of the festival for me. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange, the self-obsessed founder of the website, and Daniel Brühl as Daniel Domscheit-Berg (aka Schmidt), his erstwhile partner and the author of the book that the film draws mostly on, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World's Most Dangerous Website, the film is ostensibly narrow in scope, taking off from Assange and Domscheit-Berg’s first meeting at a hacker convention in 2007 to the massive release of the Afghanistan war logs and tens of thousands of diplomatic cables provided by Bradley Manning.

So, to say that the film is trying to be timely would be an understatement. Obviously amidst the NSA spying scandals and Private Manning’s recent trial, questions of privacy, transparency, and justice for the powers that be need to be debated; I would guess that this played a key role in the choice of the film for TIFF’s Opening Night. But unfortunately the film as it stands has very little to say about these issues.

The film as directed by Condon wants to provide insight into the enigmatic figure of Julian Assange and Benedict Cumberbatch provides his rising start power (it seems he’s in every other film here at the festival), effectively portraying Assange as part genius, part righteous avenger, and an egotist of the highest order. Hinting at his past as a hacker and as a child growing up in a cult, the film dabbles in speculative biographical analysis. However, the fact that the majority of the film is filtered through the view of Domscheit-Berg (Brühl should probably be given equal billing here) gives the film a very uneven view of Assange and the Wikileaks mission.

The film is also marred by cheap visual metaphors of the interconnectedness of the web, visualizing Assange and Domscheit-Berg’s communications as taking place in an endless room of computers influenced by the rows of desks in Orson Welle’s The Trial or Gilliam’ s Brazil. Condon’s attempts to inject energy through elaborate camera movement distract more than add to the film’s effectiveness.

If the ambiguity were part of a genuine desire to inject the conversation with some level of nuance that would be fine. But rather, it is as if the screenwriter couldn’t figure out exactly how to bring the pieces together into a cohesive whole. The presence of Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as two American officials wringing their hands over the damage Assange’s leak will do, as well as a misplaced sequence involving the tense escape of an informant from Libya, played by Alexander Siddig, seems to suggest that the film has a deep skepticism of Assange’s stated goals. But then it ends given Cumberbatch’s Assange the last word, speaking directly to the camera, about the power to bring justice being in the audience’s hands.

I can’t help but feel that the film has been neutered to fit the Hollywood mold; a truly brave film would be one that either really embraced Assange’s message of radical accountability or perhaps one that mounted a truly damning critique of him. But ideological consistency is too much to ask for here, as the film wants to celebrate the hacker hero while maybe conceding that maybe his project goes to far.

2 out of 10

The Fifth Estate (2013, USA/UK/Belgium)

Directed by Bill Condon; screenplay by Josh Singer based on the books by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and David Leigh; starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Peter Capaldi, Carice Van Houten, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci.

The Fifth Estate was chosen as the Opening Film at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Gala Presentations programme.