In “The Fifth Estate,” Benedict Cumberbatch portrays WikiLeaks’ controversial founder and central personality Julian Assange. The screenplay is an adaptation of two books, one written by the other central character in the film Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl). Because of this perspective, much of the film revolves around Berg’s relationship with Assange and the wake of disaster that Assange leaves in Berg’s life.
Before the film begins, an introduction illustrates various written communication technologies, from carving in stone through the printing press and finally the Internet. In newsrooms at The Guardian, The New York Times, and Der Spiegel a simultaneous release of information provided by WikiLeaks is in the final stages. Daniel Berg is refreshing a browser window waiting for the story to show up. The film then jumps back in time to review the events that lead to these newspapers and WikiLeaks releasing thousands of leaked US documents to the world.
Berg contacts Assange over chat and finds him trying to get a place to present at a hacker’s convention in Germany. Berg helps Assange get a room and seems to be the only person really listening while Assange speaks.
From that point on the plot of the movie follows the increasing involvement of Berg in WikiLeaks to the detriment of his paying job and personal relationships. The more time he spends working for Assange, the less time he has for outside pursuits. Berg seems to think he’s doing what is right, and is even willing to stay with Assange when he learns that the other WikiLeaks volunteers he had been communicating with were actually Assange using false email addresses.
Berg and Assange spend considerable time bouncing from one location to another, always with laptops in tow. Assange disdains anyone that doesn’t follow him and distrusts anyone that works with him. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, Berg begins to understand that for every principle Assange claimed to be working for, he ultimately was only interested in maintaining himself as the central figure.
After reaching the point in time where the action began initially, the film continues on, explaining what happened after the newspapers released their stories. There is a frantic attempt at the State Department to save assets in the field, and save face with world leaders insulted in internal communications. Berg and Assange have the falling out that lead to the writing of Berg’s book.
I came into “The Fifth Estate” without a strong opinion on WikiLeaks, its volunteers and the governments and organizations that oppose their activities. I left the film unmoved and unsympathetic to any position, for or against WikiLeaks. If “The Fifth Estate” had an agenda, it failed to deliver it.
Agenda aside, the film has the feel of an ill-conceived college art flick. The recurring image of the WikiLeaks organization as an infinite array of desks in a dark room, pulled out of a screenwriting instructor’s nightmare and forced onto the audience without remorse. No explanation of the dull plot, unlikable characters and tired symbolism can communicate how terrible the film was. What I can say that half way through, I leaned over and apologized to my wife that she had to sit through it.