One of the most controversial, and in his own way, influential figures of the 21st Century thus far is WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. In The Fifth Estate, the latest biopic (of sorts) from director Bill Condon, we are shown the events surrounding the relationship between Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl).
The central thrust of the narrative follows a similar pattern to David Fincher’s The Social Network, the definitive computer genius biopic. Yet while it attempts to recreate the tension of the Zuckerberg-Saverin relationship, it fails to create a compelling setting for them. There is no overwhelmingly stuffy environment for the techno-genius’ to breeze past in the pursuit of their goal. Instead Condon frames many key scenes in overly futuristic looking server rooms. It’s a clear attempt to try and recreate the level of excitment that Assange and Berg felt during events like the Bradley Manning ‘data dump,’ but it feels dated and from the eye of someone who doesn’t really understand the technicalities of the environment.
Then there’s the question of the idea of complete transparency in information, Assange’s driving theory. There are some side-stories that helpfully illustrate the number of lives endangered by this methodology, notably with the excellent Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney and an on-form Anthony Mackie, yet at its heart there is an oddly creeping sensation that Condon is somehow biased against Assange. This may not have been a problem, especially considering the divisive nature of his personality, but where Fincher’s film succeeded was in not taking sides, but rather presenting the characters and letting the audience make their minds up. Thus in trying to emulate The Social Network, he’s gone too far and helped to create an almost parody.
There is some enjoyment to be taken from this overblown biopic, but most of that comes from the performances of Bruhl and Cumberbatch, who really try to give three-dimensional depth to their characters in an increasingly two-dimensional world. In the end it neither infuriates enough to cause anger and does not inspire enough to draw praise. Considering the subject matter, The Fifth Estate really should have been far better. You’re better off finding the documentary by Alex Gibney entitled We Steal Secrets.
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