“Privacy for the individual. Transparency for corporations.”
The world was taken to the brink of reckoning when military whistleblower Bradley Manning leaked hundreds of confidential files, exposing illegal military activity in Afghanistan. It was this single most electrifying act that put the world renowned website WikiLeaks on the map forever.
Julian Assange, a former hacker, conceived of a site that would offer the free exchange of information, including secrets of the wealthy and, in many cases, the dangerous. Along with Daniel Berg he invented the website meant as “a refuge for whistleblowers and investigative journalists”.
After an eruption of government pushback and personal ego, WikiLeaks and its eccentric founder were put out to pasture leaving in its wake the most important conversation of these socio-political times.
What are our responsibilities and/or our rights concerning the exposure of information?
Directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls), the birth and death story of WikiLeaks is given an overview in “The Fifth Estate”. Stars Benedict Cumberbatch (Julian Assange) and Daniel Brühl (Daniel Berg) reenact moments of the Assange/Berg relationship that eventually became an international phenomenon.
The problem is: the questions concerning information remain relevant. WikiLeaks and Julian Assange do not. Even the events surrounding Bradley Manning and his personal and civil crisis have been deflated by news coverage and time.
How does “The Fifth Estate” fit into the global conversation about information trafficking?
What we learn from the film is minimal. We get a controlled view of how WikiLeaks became a massive monkey wrench in the secret operations of billion dollar corporations, including governments. We are reminded of the times in which we live, a time when information is exposed, policed, privatized, and exposed again.
The most significant contribution of the film is reminding us that whistleblowers are nothing new. The revolution against secrecy is generational, each generation against a greater wall and the whistleblower is key in bringing it down.
They are the fire behind freedom of speech, the conflagration surrounding secrecy, and the ignition fueling the cultural conversation that is sure to blaze on eternally.
What “The Fifth Estate” lacks is urgency and relevance. It is difficult to tell a story about WikiLeaks without making Assange the central character, yet this movie attempts to make Berg the main attraction thus deflating its earnestness. But even still, Assange himself is not interesting as he hides under Ecuadorian asylum.
He only becomes news with an arrest, the baring of some truth regarding sexual misconduct allegations, and extradition to Sweden. This movie tackles none of that. Right now, Assange is little more than a forgotten instrument in the current climate around information trafficking.
Furthermore, “The Fifth Estate” represents how the inferno of our most important societal discussion is extinguished and reduced to mere entertainment.
But let me be fair, We Steal Secret lingers on the consciousness of all who saw it. Alex Gibney, an Oscar winning documentarian, chronicles the rise and fall of WikiLeaks, the ascent and decline of Assange and his ego, and more importantly the identity catastrophe suffered by Bradley Manning which informed the choices leading up to the whistleblower incident.
The view of the overarching issue is complete and inclusive. “The Fifth Estate” is unable to make that claim. It tries to be poignant and revealing, but can’t because it tells an old story and refrains from bringing freshness to it.
Berg as the central character drives a narrative about a man caught between two loves – the love of a woman and the love of greatness, personified by Assange. But the question becomes whether or not Berg’s love matters. Is this what viewers care about?
Because the answer is overwhelmingly ‘no’ “The Fifth Estate” runs out of steam pretty early on. Despite Brühl’s exceptional performance and some of the stylistic choices meant to invigorate the narrative, this movie miscarries its attempt.
If you are interested in the story behind WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, see We Steal Secrets. This film only serves those who crush on Daniel Brühl like I do.