Review: The Fifth Estate - Benedict Cumberbatch's Assange might be perfect, but the Wikileaks drama is a flawed buddy movie

 

Cinema’s long-awaited take on the story of Wikileaks is played out through the friendship and subsequent rivalry of website activists Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl).

Cumberbatch as the awkward Australian Assange performs a masterclass in mimicry. He has the slow, deliberate vocal delivery, the gait and the gesticulations down. It’s a shame, then, that the performance is let down by some clumsy storytelling that trots out all the usual clichés and criticisms of the Wikileaks founder as a socially inept egotist, motivated as much by his own celebrity as by a desire to help whistle-blowers.

In complete contrast, Domscheit-Berg is depicted as a crusading idealist who is initially enraptured by Assange’s desire to stick it to the man. That he is the hero of the piece should, perhaps, come as no surprise since the film is partly based on Domscheit-Berg’s own memoir about Wikileaks. This is classic buddy movie storytelling - the young idealist slowly discovering the foibles and hypocrisy of the flawed master, but the reductionism needed to make such a narrative work hinders any attempt to reveal something new about the website.  

Indeed, the simple characterisations have more in common with the director Bill Condon’s Twilight films then with his more nuanced 2004 biopic of the sex scientist Alfred Kinsey. Sex is largely off the menu here. Berg is handed a poor love story, in which his forlorn girlfriend Anke (Alicia Vikander) is rejected in favour of his desire to help Assange. There are hints that Assange is too forward with women, most notably when he asks to swap shirts with a journalist so that he can leave a building in disguise as the Manning leaks break. The accusations of sexual abuse in Sweden that have left the activist languishing in the Ecuadorian embassy are not mentioned until the closing titles.

Instead the action deals with the period from 2007, when Assange met Domscheit-Berg at the Chaos Computer Club annual conference, until their relationship came to an end just after Wikileaks’ most famous leak - of classified American intelligence supplied by the recently jailed soldier Bradley Manning in 2010. As they become friends, we learn more about Assange – his absent father, the fact that his mother dating a cult leader when he was 13 and that he has a 19 year-old son he hasn’t seen in over a year.

David Thewlis pops up to play the Guardian journalist Nick Davies and to show the importance of Wikileaks as a news source. There are revelations about banks, the church of Scientology, and governments around the world and the film shows the reaction to the leaks in Kenya and the United States. Davies laments the demise of print journalism and the financial squeezes which impact on quality news reporting. Yet he also champions the idea that print journalists still have an ethical obligation to protect sources, check stories and not to put lives in danger. It is the one part of the film where Condon ventures into anything other than pastiche.

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Benedict Cumberbatch, Carice van Houten, Daniel Bruhl and Moritz Bleibtreu in a scene from The Fifth Estate, being shown during the Toronto International Film Festival.

Watch trailer of The Fifth Estate below:

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