It was once said that history is written by the victors, but that changed when something called the internet came along and put endless information at everyone's fingertips, letting each of us come to our own conclusions. And this idea of uncensored, unfettered access to information was taken to its most extreme with Julian Assange's website WikiLeaks; a place where secrets didn't exist.
But will history remember Assange's efforts as a heroic fight to reveal the corrupt secrets of governments and greedy corporations? Or simply the acts of a highly skilled hacker trying to prove himself by taking down 'the man'? And what information deserves to be kept private, and who exactly has the right to make that decision? These are the questions that director Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate raises, but never unfortunately answers.
The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch — best known for his role as Sherlock on the BBC series of the same name — as Assange, and Daniel Brühl as his WikiLeaks partner Daniel Domscheit-Berg. It's based on two books about the site, Inside WikiLeaks by Berg, and the Guardian's WikiLeaks written by David Leigh and Luke Harding. And that's probably one of the film's biggest problems. Not only is Julian Assange currently hiding out at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, he's also cut ties with Daniel Domscheit-Berg after their falling out, and so doesn't contribute any insights to the film.
As a result, The Fifth Estate really only posits one side of the WikiLeaks story. And that's not to say that it goes out of its way to portray Assange as either a hero or a villain, despite the controversial marketing materials. That's not the case either. It actually works hard to tell a balanced story of WikiLeaks that really leaves it up to the viewer to decide if Assange's creation and actions were honourable in the end. But without taking Assange's side into account, and looking deeper into his motivations, you're left wondering if you can really come to a conclusion.
Having quickly risen to international fame in recent years for his wonderful work on Sherlock, it's hard not going into this film worrying that all you'll see on screen is the detective with bleached hair. But Cumberbatch does a remarkable impersonation of Assange. He nails his Australian accent and slight lisp, and while you never really get used to the long white hair, it's part of Assange's highly recognisable look.
And while not quite a dead-ringer for Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Daniel Brühl also does a solid job with his character who eagerly joins Assange's cause, before slowly beginning to question the man's motives, intentions, and morals. But what's frustrating is that you never really get a look at what truly drives either of these men, particularly Assange.
At the beginning of the film you see Berg performing a harmless prank at his IT job at the expense of his boss, so it's established that he's a hacker who's ready and willing to take down 'the man'. But you never get to understand why he's so willing to instantly devote all of his spare time, at the cost of friendships and relationships, to WikiLeaks. And the same issue plagues Cumberbatch's portrayal of Assange. There's mentions of a troubling childhood spent in a cult, and a personality that borderlines on autistic, but there's little other insight as to why he's so driven to expose these secrets and truths, even at the expense of innocent persons.
To be fair, The Fifth Estate director Bill Condon, as well as screenwriter Josh Singer, don't claim the film has all the answers either. Instead, they see it as furthering the discussion about Assange's actions, WikiLeaks, and if privacy is slowly becoming an antiquated notion. And as it walks you through a sort of highlight reel of WikiLeaks greatest hits, it makes sure to show the consequences of this information becoming public.
For example, the release of classified documents related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq exposed some of the terrible wrongdoings of US troops. But Assange released those documents on WikiLeaks unredacted, where as the Guardian and the New York Times removed the names of people the releases put at risk. As a result the US government had to scramble to get confidants and other sources to safety once the documents were made public. Does this mean Julian Assange was really a heartless monster deep down? Or just blindly driven by the desire for ultimate openness and accountability?
Unfortunately, the mostly superficial look we're given at Assange's character leaves those questions unanswered. It doesn't inhibit discussions of whether or not information like this deserves to be made public, and who has the right to make that decision. But this film is a story about the WikiLeaks website — a website very much tied to Julian Assange. And that's what most people will be wanting from The Fifth Estate; a better understanding of what drove Assange to create WikiLeaks, and to risk his life and his freedom to expose these secrets. But ultimately it just serves to reinforce questions and discussions that have already been on people's minds for years now. Instead of raising new debates, or providing some kind of answers.