(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)
In the film’s final moments Julian Assange essayed by Benedict Cumberbatch (who seems to have this nice problem of playing historic figures from the real and fictional world – Holmes, Assange, Turing, Bogart, Khan. Go ahead and add Smaug and The Necromancer in The Hobbit series through voice and motion capture) is giving an interview or monologue – it’s not clear – but all he’s doing is breaking the fourth wall and asks, “A WikiLeaks movie? Which one?” followed by a smirk. This is a valid question albeit with different interpretations that needs to be asked of this confused middling film too. There are two different movies here that is being attempted and neither is done justice. There is the WikiLeaks movie that can get political, talking about ethical issues, moralities and impact in this information age. It can also get technical. Then there is the Julian Assange movie that can get personal delving into a complex not so likable character and his troubled and unclear past. It’s something The Social Network effortlessly maneuvered through, being the Mark Zuckerberg movie and not the Facebook film even if people would tell you otherwise.
The Fifth Estate directed by Bill Condon makes a mess of both the storylines. In an attempt to come clear of technicalities behind WikiLeaks, the film literalises this to tiresome degree. It depicts WikiLeaks’ submission platform in the form of a an endless office space that reminds you of the The Apartment that stands in for large amount of data that gets clogged in along with leaked information protecting the source and making the leak untraceable. The film also wishes to rationalize the man behind Assange with his past that’s mostly hazy and belongs to a different film. It’s a bit of a let down because some of the other current issues with Assange, like the sexual assault charges are brushed off as mere footnotes. The film is black and white about an age that is increasingly grey, trying to paint a sympathetic picture of Assange and his cause, free speech and transparency. It is Cumberbatch who holds the film together even in its weak moments and that’s often. His screen presence no matter what character he’s playing is already legendary but he brings a finely masked vulnerability to this character. Watch him in that scene where he’s told that there are American and Russian spies watching him from neighboring tables and is soon left alone.
The complexity of the issue had to be matched in film and that’s where The Fifth Estate fails. It simply spells out too many things that is mostly harmless but doesn’t make for a rewarding experience. It only musters reasons for the whiteness of Assange’s hair.