Film review: The Fifth Estate - Benedict Cumberbatch perfectly cast as Julian Assange

3.00

But Bill Condon's WikiLeaks thriller pulls in too many different directions

The Fifth Estate, Bill Condon's frenetic thriller about WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, suffers from one very obvious fundamental flaw. It can't work out its own attitude toward its central character. The filmmakers haven't made up their minds yet whether Assange is a visionary champion of free speech or an autocratic and "manipulative asshole" with a personality skirting on the autistic end of the spectrum. The film veers toward the latter interpretation, one reason why Assange himself has been so dismissive of it.

Another problem is the sheer complexity of the new media world that Assange inhabits. Things seemed very much simpler in All the President's Men when the Washington Post journalists Woodward and Bernstein were told by their source to "follow the money" and ended up bringing down a president. Here, after WikiLeaks posts online its huge hoard of leaked military and diplomatic documents, the results are nowhere near so straightforward. It is therefore a huge challenge for Condon and the screenwriter Josh Singer (best known for The West Wing) to create a taut and coherent narrative. With Assange currently holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London fighting extradition after sexual assault claims from two Swedish women, this is hardly a story that has reached a natural conclusion either.

The film-making style is flashy and energetic. The tone is set by the montage sequence which opens the film. We're bombarded with images which give a mini-history of printing and publishing, taking us from the earliest days of typesetting to the birth of the worldwide web.

The action begins in earnest in late 2010, just as The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel are about to release the classified US documents that came WikiLeaks' way via the US soldier Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning. The Guardian journalists are in a state of hyper-excitement. The music, sound and quick-fire editing heighten the tension. It is one of the paradoxes of The Fifth Estate that it is a film about characters who spend a large part of their lives staring at computer screens but Condon still manages to make it seem like an action movie.

Benedict Cumberbatch is very well cast as Assange. In a bizarre way, the role makes a perfect companion piece to Parade's End. The aristocratic British army officer he played may have been a Tory clinging to old world values but was as stubborn as Assange is shown to be here – and as principled.

With his white hair (which one character in the film claims is dyed) and pale skin, Assange looks as otherworldly as David Bowie's alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth, but Cumberbatch gives the character gravitas and dignity. He has absolutely no regard for social nicety. This is brought out in two of the film's most poignant scenes in which he stumbles into the private life of his assistant Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl.) In the first, he walks into Daniel's apartment late in the evening, sets up his laptop and starts working, completely oblivious to the fact that Daniel had just been making love to his girlfriend (Alicia Vikander). Privacy, it seems, is an utterly foreign concept to him. The second scene involves him going to dinner with Daniel's parents. He can't hide his contempt for their tidy bourgeois lives.

This isn't a biopic of Assange. At times, it looks as if it might turn into one. There are references to the son he hasn't seen for a year and to his own traumatic childhood in Australia where his mother was part of a religious cult. However, the filmmakers are too busy dealing with the other strands of the WikiLeaks story to delve too deeply into his background.

On one level, The Fifth Estate is a buddy movie. We see Assange from the perspective of Daniel Domscheit-Berg, whose memoir, Inside WikiLeaks, partially inspired the screenplay. There is a comic dimension to their relationship. Daniel is the Sancho Panza to Assange's Don Quixote or the Robin to his Batman. When Daniel first starts working for WikiLeaks, he thinks Assange has a huge army of assistants. In fact, it often seems it's just the two of them against the world. Condon throws in stylised sequences in which we see Assange and Daniel in what looks like a vast office with row after row of desks behind them. Of course, they're really hackers with laptops who work on the move.

The film hints at Assange's ambivalent relationship with mainstream media. He sneers at "the hallowed Guardian" with its high-minded airs and declining readership. At the same time he yearns for approval from its editors and journalists. He also begins to behave more and more like an old fashioned Citizen Kane-like proprietor.

The Fifth Estate pulls in far too many directions at once. The WikiLeaks story, it becomes apparent, is too big and complex to be turned into a coherent two-hour feature film. Characters flit in and out of sight for no particular reason. The brilliant young Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is in the film simply to provide at least a hint of a romantic subplot. There's a nicely caustic performance from Laura Linney as an American diplomat, and a very disturbing sequence showing a Libyan civil servant whose life is put in danger because of the leaks.

WikiLeaks has already dismissed The Fifth Estate as "a work of fiction masquerading as fact". It's a moot point whether the film really offers an accurate or fair portrayal of Assange, but what it does underline is that the man who set up an obscure website in 2006 is now one of the most famous media figures in the world. Hero or villain, DreamWorks wouldn't be making movies about him otherwise.

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
Arts and Entertainment
The episode saw the surprise return of shifty caravan owner Susan Wright, played by a Pauline Quirke (ITV)

Review: Broadchurch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo are teaming up for a Hurricane Katrina drama

film
Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore