Whether you consider it heroic or traitorous to reveal thousands of classified documents, Bill Condon’s “The Fifth Estate” won’t try to force any conclusions on you.
Released at a time of intense scrutiny of the U.S. government, the film addresses the controversial issue of masking government corruption to protect national security. “The Fifth Estate,” which premieres today, follows the creation and rising influence of WikiLeaks by focusing on Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the website’s founder, and Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), his collaborator.
From WikiLeaks’ beginnings as a low-scale operation to expose corruption, the website grows as it releases more and more incriminating information. Eventually, the website becomes a global sensation. As WikiLeak' prominence grows, Assange and Domscheit-Berg are forced to address the organization’s aim and mission, which become more convoluted as lives are put at risk.
Cumberbatch gives a compelling performance as Assange, a complex and unpredictable character who keeps his past as secretive as the government agencies he exposes. The film is successful in refraining from imparting bias for or against Assange’s mission. In this vein, Condon captures both sides of Cumberbatch’s Assange—the informant of vital, withheld information about concealed collateral damages, as well as the self-perceived visionary who jeopardizes the lives of numerous people with the classified documents he releases.
The upbeat, eclectic music and quick shot transitions give the film an energetic pace, mirroring the rapidity of the spread of information that facilitated WikiLeaks’ exposure. At the same time, the cinematography and scoring of the film evoke a certain levity that’s uncharacteristic of other political dramas’ soundtracks, which feature more austere ambient and tonal music. This is refreshing, since dramatic scenes of D.C.’s intelligence personnel can get old.
Bright colors and impressive graphics starkly contrast with film clips of extreme violence in war. Frequent interludes of news reels depicting numerous government scandals abroad, as well as other subtleties like Che Guevara portraits on the wall, give the film a sense of the rogue heroism and activist spirit that drive Assange to become a whistleblower. Yet this pseudo-pop cultural sentiment feels somewhat unnatural, considering the gravity of WikiLeaks—and the hyper-dramatized dialogue doesn’t help.
As Assange says, “If you want the truth, you should seek it out for yourself.” This is perfectly indicative of what this film doesn’t do: lead you to a conclusion. Like your role keeping the government in check as the “fifth estate,” it is all up to you.
“The Fifth Estate” is screening at AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13. Tickets are $8.