You might suspect that there is something awry with The Fifth Estate mere moments after the movie starts. In a very patronising bid to lecture the most media-savvy generation ever about how the news media actually works, a series of images spools before us.
From World Wars, the assassination of JFK, the death of Princess Diana, 911, the current economic recession, to the WikiLeaks revelations in 2010, to . . . hang on, the death of Princess Diana?! Yes, according to the makers of The Fifth Estate, the passing of a British royal in a Parisian tunnel is of equally world-shaking importance as the fall of empire, global war, and the collapse of economies.
And that’s the main problem with The Fifth Estate – it never manages to calm its shrill bombast, never stops hammering home the point that what we are watching IS VERY IMPORTANT, or slows down enough to put matters in context, a difficult enough thing to do considering that the WikiLeaks story may be stalled but it is on-going.
It’s certainly a tone that suits any portrayal of venal fantasist and narcissist Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who has naturally called on star Benedict Cumberbatch to disown The Fifth Estate. You can understand his dissatisfaction because Cumberbatch is wildly successful in capturing Assange’s misanthropy and preening self-obsession. He is by far the best thing here.
Sporting a kind of blonde mane last seen on Julian Sands in the early nineties, he storms about in a perpetual strop like Harry Enfield’s teen brat Kevin as he battles first government secrecy, and then old media hacks who actually want to do crazy things like protecting the innocent and checking facts.
As we know the whole WikiLeaks saga is a very complex story of journalistic ethics, the erosion of old media processes and principles, and the exposure of political and military mendacity. It is indeed VERY IMPORTANT and to his credit, director Condon tries to anchor the sprawling narrative by zoning in on the initial friendship between Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the WikiLeaks’ spokesman who fell out badly with Assange and whose book this film is partly based on.
He is played by the normally excellent Daniel Brühl but the assiduous German actor seems unsure of how to deal with the constantly shifting slagheap of the story and a script that sounds like it was formulated in a mid-nineties USENET chatroom. Some of the sparkling gems include: “That’s all we need, another mad man with mustard gas”, “Welcome to the revolution!” and my personal favourite, “Christ! Putin will go ballistic!”
Conden’s misguided decision to try to show what the internet actually looks like is also pointless and very silly. According to The Fifth Estate, the internet actually looks like a scene from Terry Gillian’s Brazil with endless rows of PCs with Assange’s imminently punchable face glowering behind them. Forget the disgust you may feel about leaked war logs and diplomatic cables, that was enough to make me unplug post haste.
A chance to make a movie of similar complexity and elegance as The Social Network or maybe something with the taut encroaching fear of one of Alan J Pakula paranoia thrillers has been lost. But Cumberbatch is riveting as Assange. Towards the end of The Fifth Estate, we are offered a chance to see his human side and an insight into why he became the man he is but by then his delirium of self-importance and petulance may have left you sympathetic to the monsters he did so well to fight.
Three years after WikiLeaks initial revelations, scare-mongering western powers are still squirming with false contrition about war crimes and embarrassing diplomatic leaks and Assange is still holed up as a political pawn in London.
The Fifth Estate does work on one level – it does a very good job in doing neither side any favours. The problem is that it doesn’t do the viewer any favours either.