During filmmaker Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate there's a wonderful surreal moment where they re-create a recent interview with Julian Assange (with Benedict Cumberbatch assaying the role) where he's asked about the film you're watching. The WikiLeaks founder dubs it the 'anti WikiLeaks' movie; which is actually a more snappy (if inaccurate) title for this slick techno-thriller that seeks the truth of the humanity driving the crusade for transparency. It's a look at the legend and the man behind one of the world's most controversial publications from the perspective of his former right hand man, Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl).
Screen-writer Josh Singer takes Daniel Domscheit-Berg's book "Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website," and David Leigh & Luke Harding's "WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy" and hones in on their relationship during their short tumultuous time at the helm of modern insider media empire. Singer doesn't simply paint the picture of Assange as villain; he projects an outward impression and then incrementally explores the layers of the man under the vice-like scrutiny of international acclaim. It's an extremely well-paced snapshot of the key moments in the story without seeing the shiny allure of some of their major exclusives outside of the flagship cases or the huge whistleblowing elephant in the room, whistle-blower Bradley Manning.
Condon crafts two sensational co-lead performances with the in form Cumberbatch and Brühl. Cumberbatch hypnotically ricochets between the erratic inner workings of Assange. Apart from the necessary and now iconic aesthetic queues his gestural manipulation to incorporate Assange's many ticks (and sweet dance moves) he creates an impression of the man that you can, at times, empathise with. While he's recruiting, speaking and attempting to inspire his audience you're transfixed, in the quieter moments that he and Daniel realise that they can actually affect change it is inspiring. Julian's default loner setting and affronting introversion is cause for clash after clash. Oh and I just have to mention that Cumberbatch absolutely nails the Australian accent, something that could have made or broken the authenticity of his entire performance. Berg (Brühl) is the balm to Assange's 'hair trigger' temper and the moral barometer to their pursuit. It's a much more restrained, subtle Brühl embodying the loyal disciple Daniel. He fights for and excuses Julian's behaviour because of the sacrifices required to make to toppling huge corporations and challenging governments. However, Brühl plays Berg as connected to people and Condon embodies this in his on and off relationship with Alicia Vikander as Anke Domscheit.
After the barrage of US media propaganda following the 'biggest leak of secure documents in history,' and documentaur Alex Gibney's We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks that attempted to shine the light on the source - Bradley Manning - as opposed to the tool itself, one would be right to ask 'how much more could one possibly know about this story to form an opinion?' The revelatory moments aren't in the historical facts but in the emotional truths conveyed by the performances. Condon keeps the men in close proximity, Daniel increasingly aware of the human cost of their cause, while Julian paints the countries culpable for their inherent cultivated censorship - they're a human ying and yang. There's no trace of the awful Twilight stench on Condon and it's an extremely proficient piece of filmmaking. Condon finds the tonal middle ground between a 70s conspiracy thriller and the stylised modern bio-pic in David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network. The only stylistic choice that didn't resonate for me was Condon projecting the inner workings of the website as a kind of infinite open planned office dreams.
There are alternate voices to give additional perspective to the debate. David Thewlis' Guardian stalwart Nick Davies sees the potential of the publication but with the awareness of the delicate ego holding the information. The American perspective comes from Laura Linney's diplomat Sarah Shaw her colleagues Sam Coulson (Anthony Mackie) and James Boswell (Stanley Tucci) show the perspective of those in the espionage trade as their assets are put on the WikiLeaks revelatory countdown timer or their superiors are being lambasted for their confidential opinions being trumpeted to their international counterparts.
The Fifth Estate is Woodward VS Bernstein. It doesn't attempt to answer the controversy, but it does highlight the quandary that this online sanctuary for insiders and bastion of modern journalistic truth was operated by flawed people.
[rating=3] and a half
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Director: Bill Condon
Written by: Josh Singer (Screenplay)
Based on the books by Daniel Domscheit-Berg "Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website," and David Leigh & Luke Harding's "WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy")
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Carice van Houten, David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi, Jamie Blackley, Alicia Vikander, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci
BLAKE HOWARD IS A FILM CRITIC & THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF/CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS THE HOST OF THE ONE HEAT MINUTE PODCAST. BLAKE IS ALSO A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.