The Fifth Estate review

REVIEW: The Fifth Estate

In a nutshell: An exploration of WikiLeaks (the non-profit organisation which reveals secret and classified information from governments across the globe) and the man behind it, Julian Assange.

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Laura Linney, Dan Stevens, David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi

The first three minutes of The Fifth Estate shows how the way we spread news has evolved over the millennium. Starting with the Egyptian hieroglyphics, whirl-winding past the Medieval seals and flicking through propaganda speeches, newspapers and websites, the scene ends with the final issue of Newsweek, with #LastPrintIssue emblazoned in red on its cover. This not only sets the stage for the start of Julian Assange and the rise of WikiLeaks, but also hints at the uneasy change in the way news is now received and shared.

The film has naturally attracted controversy. Julian Assange penned an open letter to Benedict Cumberbatch, asking him not to accept the lead role; Cumberbatch replied, justifying his acceptance of the role thus: “The Fifth Estate is a powerful, if dramatized, entry point for a discussion about this extraordinary lurch forward in our society”.

The script is based on the memoirs of Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), a young German programmer who is spellbound by Assange and the truth-telling promise of the website. After all their shared experiences at the helm of the website, Assange and Daniel part on less than amicable terms (with the increasingly egocentric Assange asserting, amongst other things, that Daniel suffered from schizophrenia and that his girlfriend worked for the CIA).

It’s not clear how much of this animosity made it into the script and how much of what we’re seeing is ‘real’; whilst Daniel is portrayed as an earnest, hard-working young man who puts his own life on hold for the ‘noble cause’, Assange is depicted as an aggressive fantasist, who, in the words of The Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin, has ‘By the end… been repackaged as a sixth-rate Bond villain, ranting noisily against the West while prodding at his laptop, at which point you are ready for Daniel Craig to arrive, in a freshly pressed tuxedo, and hurl him off the top of a skyscraper.’

The ending of the film is misaligned with the start; we first meet Assange as he arrives at court; we then cut to the body of the film, where the events leading up to the court appearance take place; and the ending of the film is Assange, presumably at the Ecuador Embassy, answering questions to a faceless interviewer. Minimal explanation is given as to how the three sections of the film are linked together beyond a few lines of text; the film ends as unsure about Assange as it was when the camera started rolling.

A lot of The Fifth Estate relies on presumed knowledge; the viewer is thought to have an inside-out knowledge of servers and platforms and hacking, as well as an in-depth following of the Assange case IRL. For a film that is so concerned with revealing the truth, it is, in places, less than forthcoming with its own realities.

In cinemas now


The Fifth Estate director: “Benedict Cumberbatch wanted to be fair to Assange” (The Telegraph)

Four good reasons not to watch The Fifth Estate (The Spectator)

Read Julian Assange’s letter to Benedict Cumberbatch


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