The Fifth Estate is All the President’s Men from Deep Throat’s perspective. The story of WikiLeaks is a solid portrait of recent history. It lacks subtext but the text is poignant enough on its own. This movie will inform generations to come on how it happened and what was at stake, and how all our future information distillation will be colored by it. Considering I just loved the maligned biopic Jobs, that was my preferred technology biography (technography?), but I like this too.
Directed by Bill Condon, The Fifth Estate visualizes a lot of the cyber mechanics of Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch)’s business of exposing secrets. A lot of computer movies have struggled with this for a long time and we’ve just gotten to the point where text messages are no longer read aloud by the characters on screen. There is some voiceover here but only interwoven with many other interesting techniques. This may be the next level, as Assange’s network of contacts are depicted as a literal office full of individual desks, stretching back so far they must be a visual effect. A literal paper flow makes information visual, and the film keeps up a fast tempo with editing and score. It begins with a classy montage taking us from cave paintings through Sanskrit to the printing press and web publishing, so when the history of journalism is encapsulated as such, the next step is to spend the rest of the movie delving into what makes this function.
The film covers a relatively limited period of time beginning when Assange met Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) and they built WikiLeaks into a trusted source for uncovering confidential information, and climaxing when they published diplomatic cables in 2010. That’s the news story we all remember, ranging from embarrassingly candid Hilary Clinton emails to names of contacts in hostile countries who would now be at risk of exposure.
The most compelling aspect of the WikiLeaks story to me is simply how they did it. I mean, how did this function practically? This was a full time job to obtain the information and keep their own system secure. Those details are interesting, and peppered throughout are hints that they were supported by fellow hackers donating hardware, as well as financial donations. They didn’t have other jobs, at least not as depicted in The Fifth Estate. They were full time WikiLeaks for Assange’s vision of information transparency and accountability.
Less fascinating, but valid to the story, is the exploration of Assange’s and Berg’s personal lives. This is standard template of any biopic, the rise and fall, the egos getting in the way. Workaholism compromises Berg’s personal relationships, and it should be no surprise that a guy like Assange had social problems. He’s rude and abrasive, but the film, and Cumberbatch, have fun indulging in his more playful weirdness too.
This is where the film lacks the subtext I found in JOBS (innovation at the cost of one’s soul) or, to use a more popular example, The Social Network. How they got these secrets and succeeded in blowing them open is juicy. How it affected them is not indicative of any larger issues. It’s simply that they disagreed and stopped getting along, like when the band breaks up in a music bio.
Well, it’s narratively simple that they had an ideological difference, but that ideology is pretty significant. Do we want information at all costs, or do we protect secrets that compromise innocent lives? They’re the same questions we asked when WikiLeaks broke. I guess that’s why it feels like just asking them in the movie isn’t really getting at it. It’s the minimum requirement to include these questions in the movie. The film knows these questions are bigger than a single film can answer, and perhaps feels like it’s pulling its punches to avoid overstepping. Overstep, man. Go for it. You’re Bill motherfuckin’ Condon!
Then there’s a bit of a second movie going on. Once the big cable leak is looming, we meet Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney in a Hilary Clinton haircut), a White House rep dealing with the government side of WikiLeaks. Her scenes, including Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie, are an equally compelling tale of how a government responds to an information threat. It can’t help feeling separate, because it is, but then they wouldn’t have ever interacted with Assange so the movie shouldn’t fake it. It’s easy to see how they could be the good guys of their own movie, so juxtaposing that legitimate government story against the egotistical idealism of Assange gives it that needed moral ambiguity. Both sides have problems and they’re going to come to a head whether they’re right or wrong, because they did and that’s what happened.
By the end, The Fifth Estate does start to pontificate a little about why it was all worth it and what kind of person could create WikiLeaks in the first place. This is just theory and Psychology 101, not really contributing to the ethical questions alluded to above. Then an epilogue after the requisite postscript text is a little too cute. Overall though, this is a fascinating look at an aspect of our recent history, one I’m sure will resonate in real life even if the movie doesn’t quite have a perspective on those consequences just yet.