During a pivotal speech in Bill Condon’s contentious film about the rise of WikiLeaks, founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) paraphrases the words of Oscar Wilde as justification for using whistleblowers to shame governments into transparency.
‘Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth,’ drawls Assange to a hall of potential acolytes.
Whether there is absolute truth in The Fifth Estate is debatable.
Based in part on Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s unflattering book Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange At The World’s Most Dangerous Website, Condon’s film has been denounced by the website, which insists ‘most of the events depicted never happened’.
There are certainly elements of The Fifth Estate that beggar belief, including the central relationship between Assange and Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl).
On screen, the white-haired Australian founder is depicted as manipulative, self-serving and bullying. He treats everyone, particularly nice guy Daniel, with lip-curling disdain which forces us to question why the two men would continue to work together when one is painted as a monster.
‘Remember Daniel, courage is contagious,’ Julian instructs his awe-struck protege, who learns to make calls on disposal mobile phones and to always look over his shoulder in case he is being followed.
Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Assange is mesmerising. The vocal patterns and mannerisms all seem polished to perfection but the cold blackness in his eyes refuses to let us in.
The film opens in London, July 2010, in the offices of The Guardian. Editor Alan Rusbridger (Peter Capaldi), Deputy Ian Katz (Dan Stevens) and reporter Nick Davies (David Thewlis) are poised to publish their front page story about the Bradley Manning leaks in tandem with The New York Times and Der Spiegel.
The film rewinds two years to sketch the relationship between Julian and Daniel, who meet at a conference and embark on their quest to expose corruption within the upper echelons of power. Julian demands absolutely loyalty, which puts intolerable strain on Daniel’s relationship with his girlfriend, Birgitta (Carice van Houten). Meanwhile, Deputy Undersecretary Of State, Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney), becomes increasingly concerned by the power wielded by WikiLeaks.
The Fifth Estate repeatedly sticks the knife into Assange, like when one character tartly quips ‘Only someone so obsessed with his own secrets could have come up with a way to publish everyone else’s.’
Cumberbatch’s theatrics are bolstered with solid support and Condon demonstrates directorial brio to realise the virtual world for the cinematic medium.