THE FIFTH ESTATE is a an entertaining, balanced, but slightly flawed look at the early days of Wikileaks. It was directed by Bill Condon, who has done some great stuff, but now has the stink of TWILIGHT upon him. What's good? An important story told well, and a great performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Asange. What's bad? Poor treatment of computers (which are at the heart of the story), and a third act that lacks nuance.
Comparisons to THE SOCIAL NETWORK are obvious. This is the story of the creation of a disruptive technology that has changed our world, and its driven, but flawed founder. Both are based on tell-all books by early partners who reveal considerable nastiness behind the imperfect men at the centers of their stories. The team here can't match the dynamism of Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher, but to their credit, they stick closer to the facts.
Condon walks the line between beatification and vilification by presenting both the greatness achieved by Asange and his rather sizable faults. He leads with The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel all coordinating to go live with the Bradley Manning leaks, and then takes us back in time to the early days when Wikileaks was little more than Asange and bluster. The story begins in earnest with the meeting between Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Bruhl) and Asange. Domscheit-Berg was Asange's right hand man, and in the early days Wikileaks was just the two of them and some hardware. As the film elaborates, Asange is somewhat socially challenged (on the Autism spectrum, he says), and one of Daniel's many functions was to smooth over Asange's rough edges and help him work with others to transform Wikileaks into the revolutionary enterprise it would become. He's just as driven and dedicated as Asange, but is constantly in his shadow. This leads to tensions with his girlfriend Anke (Alicia Vikander). The film follows his personal story while also showing the growth and global impact of Wikileaks though conversations between him and Asange, and some of the players involved, including the editors at major newspapers (played by David Thewlis, Dan Lewis, and the new Doctor Who Peter Capaldi), and diplomats at the US State Department (Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney).
This is quite a balancing act, because the impact of Wikileaks is astounding, but it can be difficult to visually convey the impact of such abstractions. Some of the time, Condon resorts to the characters saying something along the lines of "this is huge!" But the film works best when it shows the lives of those affected -- State Department sources whose lives were put in jeopardy because of Asange's recklessness, and diplomats whose careers were ended.
Cumberbatch, as always, does an outstanding job. His Asange evolves from a nebbish, dreaming mathematician to a media savvy asshole. While he may be best known for his portrayal of another Asbergers-ish genius, Sherlock, the performances are worlds apart. One of the hardest jobs in film is for a famous, recognizable actor to portray a still-living celebrity, but Cumberbatch nails it.
My biggest beef with the movie lies with its pedantic treatment of computers. We get sound effects that don't exist, computer screens that read like a filmmakers idea of what a computer says, and ridiculous metaphors for some of the computer wizardry. The site internals are represented as a kind of dream sequence of an infinite office of desks, with people typing away. When someone deletes a file, they turn over a desk, etc. When are we going to get filmmakers who realize that we are all digital natives now? Or at least realize that a large majority of the audience is going to feel talked down to by the use of the Hollywood OS.
But my second major complaint is that when things start to heat up in the last third of the film, nuance gets lost, the dialog gets pretty direct, and characters are basically just telling you what to think. Sure, they are telling you conflicting things to think, but all of the subtlety and complex character development get compressed into one-liners.
Many have complained that the rape case against Asange is dispensed with in an epilogue here. I actually thought that was a brilliant move. Instead, Condon has shown us the vast interests arrayed against Asange, but also his ineptitude in dealing with personal relationships, his extraordinary arrogance, and his tendency for self destruction. We are left to make up our own mind.
All in all, even with the above caveats, I enjoyed FIFTH ESTATE. It is an important story, and Bill Condon did it justice, capturing the essence of it, while managing to keep it engaging.