Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Fifth Estate (2013) - Bill Condon

As the opening of The Fifth Estate depicts, communication is very much at the heart of the modern, high-tech, Internet-fuelled world.  But does this come at a cost?  Here, communication is a danger to society, Condon’s film filled with frenzied montages of cyberspace, a buzzing and noisy electronic soundtrack and an increasingly urgent narrative that exponentially snowballs out of control.

This narrative is far from an impartial account of Julian Assange and the Wikileaks saga.  Based in part on the book by Daniel Domscheit-Berg (a spokesperson for Wikileaks), the film follows Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) as he rises from petty hacker and political activist to an information terrorist, aided by Berg (Daniel Bruhl – fresh from his performance in Rush).  It’s certainly a change of pace from Condon’s previous work on the Twilight films, yet The Fifth Estate is arguably as fantastical.  As a film, Condon fails to produce an exciting thriller; as a piece of political propaganda, The Fifth Estate is hugely biased.  It’s easy to see why, in a letter to Cumberbatch, Assange claimed “I do not believe that this film is a good film…it is going to be overwhelmingly negative for me and the people I care about”.

Cumberbatch is an incredibly capable actor and his performance here is a striking transformation.  Under the direction of Condon, Cumberbatch seems more like the older, hippy brother of Draco Malfoy with his greasy bleached locks and snarling demeanour.  Initially, his Assange is an inspiring, pied piper figure whose spell Berg quickly and easily falls under.  Yet over the course of the film, he is revealed to be a distrusting, unforgiving and unsociable control freak; a man who is closer connected to his laptop than to the world around him and fiercely loyal to the agenda of his website.  His behaviour is reckless and irresponsible, whilst he conducts his work in secret – ironic for a man so obsessed with transparency.  By the end of the film, it’s clear that (through the eyes of Condon) Assange is a somewhat mentally unstable figure who reverts to the great computer-filled office in his mind.  Or, as Berg’s girlfriend puts it, “a manipulative arsehole”.

The result of such a one-sided view is that we are never trusted with our own opinion.  The film’s final moments are a direct call to the audience, with Cumberbatch’s Assange quoting Oscar Wilde in his final speech: “Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth”.  Yet how much of The Fifth Estate is actual truth is difficult to ascertain.  In that same speech, he claims "If you want the truth you should seek it out for yourself" - are these the words of Assange or Condon?

A key quote, however, comes from Laura Linney’s White House representative Sarah Shaw towards the end of the film: “I don't know which one of us history will judge most harshly".  The Fifth Estate makes that perfectly clear.