The Fifth Estate

the fifth estateWikiLeaks was a word that we heard over and over for a period of time a couple of years back.  Founded in 2006 by Julian Assange the online organization which publishes news leaks, secret information and media given to them by anonymous sources has had its fair share of controversy and defenders.  As such it is a natural subject for a film.

The film attempts to get across one of Mr. Assange’s biggest messages – don’t believe everything you see.  The film is no way near a perfect docudrama with all its flaws and strengths but it does try to open up a discussion about the mysterious man behind the website.

Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch – Star Trek: Into Darkness, Atonement) is a computer hacker who dreams of bigger things.  With just such a goal in mind, he begins a non-profit website that leaks news called WikiLeaks.  He brings Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl – Inglorious Basterds, The Bourne Ultimatum) on board for technical support.  The site gets big publicity after it exposes corruption at a Swiss bank and then follows that up by releasing footage that shows that the U.S. is hitting civilians during airstrikes on Baghdad.  Soon WikiLeaks is breaking more stories than traditional network news agencies.

Trouble begins when Assange and Berg come into passion of hundreds of thousands of documents that expose civilian deaths and government cover-ups in regards to the war in Afghanistan.  What to do with it?  There is too much for them and their small staff to go through so they reluctantly have to partner up with major media outlets.  Soon the two partners are having disagreements about what and how things should be published.  Trouble in paradise.  The two begin to have fundamental arguments about what they are attempting to do – render governments transparent or protecting the privacy of the whistleblowers.

As he has come onto my acting radar Benedict Cumberbatch has revealed himself to me as an actor of such talent that he is able to add nuances and depth to characters even when they aren’t entirely there.  It is a tough and complex job to portray Julian Assange on screen.  He is a man who believed in revealing corporate and governmental secrets while working hard to cover up his own.  Cumberbatch tries to make the man likable and despite his best efforts he does not quite get there.  When Cumberbatch is given something to sink his teeth into he is wonderful.  It just doesn’t happen often enough for my liking.

Director Bill Condon, in his first film since the awful Twilight pictures he did, like the main character himself demonstrates himself to be sometimes heavyhanded and definitely a little all over the place.  Assange comes off like a crazy man while the Berg character is the one we cheer for.  As I sat there watching I wondered several times if this was an accurate portrayal of the Australian.  It doesn’t come off as evenhanded even though at the end through the epilogue it tries to play both sides of the fence.  He does manage to keep a film that could have been very dull engaging.  There is only so much he can do with a film that involves people hunched over computers for a lot of it, so let’s cut him a break there.

What I found myself turned off with more and more as the film went on was all the stereotypes about hacker culture that were heaped one upon the next.  Everything you thought about computer hackers going into the film rears its ugly head at one point.  Makes me wonder about the research that went into the film.  It can’t all be true, right?  I need some whistleblowing here.

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