‘The Fifth Estate’ Gets Julian Assange Right, But Can’t Convey Why WikiLeaks Matters

Let’s face it: from the get-go Julian Assange had that movie-villain magic about him. The hair, the weird way of speaking, the hair. Even his high principles, the single-mindedness of purpose that he prides himself on, suggest creepiness rather than conviction. That’s partly Hollywood’s fault; we’ve come to associate certain behaviors with a type. Assange displays a kind of idealism we see more often in movie bad guys than heroes, these days. It was only a matter of time before someone decided to make a film of all the WikiLeaks hullabaloo.

Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, which opens today, is the first such effort. And all things considered, it’s a pretty good one. In its portrayal of Assange himself, it’s giant lesson in control. The film certainly doesn’t shy away from Assange’s… peculiarities. Benedict Cumberbatch is given a pretty long leash to be as odd and off as he can be with that marvelously plummy voice of his. But he doesn’t abuse the privilege. Towards the end of the film he’s invited to break the fourth wall and really skewer his own character, and where some actors might have been just hammering the point home, he is restraining himself, and being even more damning in his suggestion that Assange is mostly artifice as a result.

And yet, the film falls down where so many have failed before: it has no idea how to depict the Internet. One can practically hear the executives standing just off-camera yelling, “We need the young kids to love this!!?! Can you project text messages on the character’s faces? More flashing lights, more pizazz!” The movie goes overboard in trying to accommodate that anxiety. And sure, staring at people coding will be boring, and there’s a problem nobody has really successfully surmounted yet. You still don’t want to resort to techniques that keep your audience stifling laughter, because it interrupts the suspension of disbelief. And you make everyone involved look like they have never used the Internet. Though, to be fair, somebody involved clearly watched Hackers: most of the business of coding happens in various Berlin nightclubs, usually with the thudding of bass in the background. So hip, so of our time, this image, in the encrusted arteries of Hollywood.

There is also the problem of the film’s alleged protagonist, a simulacrum of Assange’s partner-in-crime, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who also wrote the book on which the movie is based. He has great glasses and a lovely German accent, but one is given very little sense of why he got involved in the mission. There were a lot of nights of being on the list at these fabled hacker nightclubs, perhaps. What few ideas about politics and human rights that he or Assange may hold are more or less sidelined. It’s suggested that Assange had some views about anarchism, but what they are is more or less mumbled and then hurried offstage.

It’s a shame, because the script is more intelligent than that. It deftly walks a tightrope, as it does not let Assange’s (comparatively filmable) eccentricities take the center ring. No one and nothing in this film questions for a second that WikiLeaks did something very important. What it doesn’t know — in a reflection of just how fast events moved from reality to the screen here — is the nature of that importance.

WikiLeaks supporters kicked up a bit of a fuss about this very issue when the script was leaked online. In a lengthy response to it, they complained that The Fifth Estate is too ambivalent about WikiLeaks’ mission. They were annoyed that it implies that blood was shed over the revelations, when there is no concrete proof of the same. This response was a little literal-minded for my taste. When someone looks back in a hundred years, I don’t think the details of what WikiLeaks did will loom that large. The importance wasn’t in the details. It was in how, very suddenly and without much warning, a very small group of people actually managed to change the world. They yanked an actual, concrete carpet out from under the feet of politicians who used national security as a lazy crutch. I am inclined to say that’s a good and momentous thing, personally. And that someone, one day, is going to make a much better movie about it.