The intrigue that surrounds WikiLeaks and the legend-like feel to its existence and survival is fascinating to say the least. The film version, however, is clunky and moves back and forth so rapidly that it’s hard to keep up with the magnitude of what’s happening. “The Fifth Estate” skims part of the history of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and how he uses the truth as power to post on his website. The truth comes in all forms from anonymous whistleblowers sending in reports and classified information, uncovering secrets in order for WikiLeaks to expose it via the World Wide Web. Julian makes a strong argument for how important it is to put facts into the public’s hands and how truth is often concealed due to fear of retribution. But the film also shows that there is another side to the truth: it is dangerous and not meant for everyone’s knowledge. There is knowledge that not everyone knows what to do with, where it can do more harm than good.
It’s a torn dilemma throughout the movie. One I would have liked to see in fuller context rather than Julian walks to a restaurant. Julian walks to an apartment. Julian walks to a speaking event. Julian is pro-truth, even the ugly parts, especially the ugly parts, and wants them to be wholly digested, not chopped up editorially and fed to us. His colleague Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) toys with the other side of the “more harm than good” side of the coin. He knows WikiLeaks is revolutionary, giving voices to those who don’t have them, but also in some situations making it a more dangerous place for everyone involved. Knowledge is power and ignorance is bliss. Both can be benefits and both can hold burdens.
Cumberbatch plays Julian as smart, calculated and a bit maniacal. His white hair is a constant prop Julian uses as an explanation that faintly echoes Batman’s Joker explanation of his painted-on smile. Each time Julian tells the story of why his hair is white, the details change. His truth stays hidden. Somehow he’s zipping around the world on a startup company budget with his office in his backpack. It’s clear he doesn’t sweat the small stuff, but this level of travel seems hardly feasible on his supposed limited budget. High-tier people have entrusted him with political, religious, controversial secrets, but why? What credentials make him a reliable resource?
The mood of the movie seems less frenetic when Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci come on the scene as White House officials. They ground it so we can realize the gravity of what it really means to have such top secret information leaked. The kind of Information scooped up before The Guardian or The New York Times even have a chance to sniff it out. Perhaps if the movie had begun at this point and worked backwards the pace wouldn’t have felt so jerky, the sequence of events might have made a bit more sense. We might have cared more.
Final words: “The Fifth Estate” interpretation of WikiLeaks dulled its mysterious shine.