Julian Assange is perhaps one of the most controversial men to emerge from the past decade—apart from George W. Bush and Sarah Palin (whose gender might still be questionable as no woman could hate women that much). In the realm of news and information, he unquestionably altered the course of how we view media: As merely telling only part of the story. His sordid past and unwieldy psychosis, however, seem to be the primary emphasis of director Bill Condon’s (who is best know for Twilight, but has at least also directed The Others) The Fifth Estate.
Screenwriter Josh Singer, known primarily for his work on The West Wing and Law & Order, does his best to extract the key pieces of Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s 2011 memoir, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website. Domscheit-Berg’s (Daniel Brühl, best known for his role as the prick Nazi—though that might not narrow it down—in Inglourious Basterds) role in the film is decidedly played up as a direct result of basing the screenplay on his work. This is evident based on Assange’s extreme ego, and the fact that it seems implausible that he would ever allow someone to have any control over one of his projects.
Using the old start at the end, flash back to the beginning method, Condon opens The Fifth Estate with Domscheit-Berg sitting in front of his computer with The Guardian’s headline about over 90,000 confidential documents from Afghanistan being leaked. Frantic over the release, Domscheit-Berg sees Assange on TV giving an interview and appears frantic about getting a hold of him. The script then jumps back to 2007, the year Domscheit-Berg first met Assange in Berlin.
Interested in Assange’s activist aura, Domscheit-Berg gravitates toward the WikiLeaks cause instantly, especially after Assange assures “we have hundreds of volunteers.” The close connection Assange feels with Domscheit-Berg comes off as forced in the film, particularly when Assange attempts a heartfelt exchange by confessing that he was raised in an absurdly depraved cult (the ultimate explanation for his own secrecy and the motive behind exposing the secrets of others).
Of course, Cumberbatch himself is what makes The Fifth Estate so intensely watchable. It is as though Cumberbatch has taken on Assange’s entire persona and, in so doing, has forced his own identity to disappear altogether. On the heels of another film about WikiLeaks and Assange—a documentary entitled We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks—it would seem that in spite of Assange’s fall from grace, history is still positioning him as a seminal figure.
Ironically enough, it is American history that this Australian-born, England resident has so strongly altered the course of—so much so that the Department of Justice has attempted to prosecute him for his roguish behavior, namely, stealing U.S. documents from military and diplomatic arms of government. His diplomatic asylum from sexual assault charges at the Ecuadorian embassy in London is perhaps, for some, not the sort of vindication they were hoping for. And, although he may be in a form of retreat now, it seems likely that The Fifth Estate is not to be the last biopic we see of Assange. But then, no one will be able to play him as Cumberbatch has.