[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. The Fifth Estate opens today.]
Our modes of storytelling change with technology. As we see in the opening credits of Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, we’ve gone from cave paintings to hieroglyphics to the written word to the printing press to the typewriter and currently to the computer. But as The Fifth Estate shows, some stories stay the same, and in the case of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the story is “power corrupts”. Through the structure of a fast-paced, high-stakes thriller, Condon paints a compelling portrait both of Assange and the brave new world created by his controversial brand of journalism. The film is occasionally beset with bursts of editorializing, both on the character of Assange and how WikiLeaks changed the world. But Condon also raises fascinating questions regarding privacy and transparency, power and responsibility, and seeking “truth” in the digital age.
Starting with the eve of WikiLeaks’ biggest story—the logs and records leaked by Bradley Manning—Condon cuts back to Berlin, 2007 where Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his supporter Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) are beginning to grow their site. A mixture of hacking, reporting, and anonymity brings them their first big success when they expose the tax evasion perpetrated by a major banking institution. From there, the two men begin a whirlwind of exposes through WikiLeaks’ unique ability to have information submitted anonymously and then verified by Assange and Domscheit-Berg. However, as the site’s power grows, Assange’s already inflated ego becomes even more destructive, and begins to fracture not only the perceived mission of the website, but also his friendship with Domscheit-Berg.
The Fifth Estate will invite comparisons to The Social Network and All the President’s Men even though it’s not as good or as groundbreaking as those movies. Assange has the anti-social tendencies of the Mark Zuckerberg character, and Condon makes investigative journalism look very cool. But The Fifth Estate is far too self-conscious about its famous figure. The movie is careful to praise and condemn Assange in equal measure, and while his reputation is impossible to ignore, the character is only a notable piece in a much larger picture.
Assange is a curious character, but his creation is far more fascinating, and Condon makes sure to invest his picture in the mission and purpose of WikiLeaks. In the site’s ideal form, it’s a way to protect whistleblowers by providing complete anonymity. “Privacy for the individual, transparency for the powerful,” Assange says at one point. But those lofty intentions also render people in the abstract. Even Assange’s estranged relationship with his son is only regarded as a “sacrifice”, which in turn becomes a badge of honor. But an avenger can only see the crusade, and it’s exhilarating and captivating to watch Assange and Domscheit-Berg on their mad quest.
Condon uses some fantastic visuals in order to navigate the tricky task of depicting online journalism. He not only uses the now-familiar trick of writing texts and e-mails over the action (as opposed to only looking at what’s on the device’s screen). For the “newsroom”, he brings Assange and Domscheit-Berg into the idea of what a digital newsroom looks like: endless desks in a dark grey landscape. Woodward and Bernstein have left the building because there is no more building. There is only the idea of the building, and the ideals therein are hazy.
Those ideals clash at the film’s heart, which is the relationship between Assange and Domscheit-Berg. They may believe in the same thing at the outset, but Domscheit-Berg must fight to become the site’s conscience as Assange becomes powerful and corrupt in his relentless drive to bring down the powerful and corrupt. When it comes to releasing the Afghanistan documents provided by Manning, Assange’s believes that WikiLeaks’ obligation is to the unedited truth while Domscheit-Berg believes that they need to redact the names in order to protect informants, agents, etc. Through this new prism created by WikiLeaks, how does journalism serve “the people”?
Truth and technology are inexorably intertwined because the medium is the message. Even Condon implicitly acknowledges how his movie has crafted a perception of Assange based on the source material as well as casting, editing, etc. The Fifth Estate isn’t trying to expose the “real” Julian Assange. It’s trying to examine how Assange’s creation has taken our perception of the “truth” in a bold, new, and controversial direction. The Fifth Estate provides another layer where instead of a lecture on journalism and reporting in the digital age, we get a fun, flashy picture that makes sure we consider the source.