One advantage of reviewing a film two days after its Friday opening is that you can see how it fared at the box office. In the case of The Fifth Estate’s $1.7 million, it has now had the worst studio opening of any film of 2013, yanking that ignominious distinction from Paranoia. The fact that few people have come out to see the film is attributable to a number of causes, perhaps most of all because anyone interested in getting the true story behind WikiLeaks had been warned by numerous sources, including Julian Assange himself, that the story propounded by the film was far from the truth.
In fact, a few weeks ago, in a gesture that should have surprised no one, WikiLeaks leaked the entire screenplay, followed by a talking-points memo alleging the script’s many inaccuracies and liberties with its portrayal of Assange. I glanced at the first scenes, choosing to stop reading so as not to influence my initial viewing. After seeing the film, I had the disquieting opinion that it is actually worse than many of its opponents warned, both in factual accuracy and dramatic efficacy. If The Fifth Estate is going to be useful for anything, it should serve as an example of how not to adapt recent history, especially when that history is politically charged.
The narrative revolves around the years of WikiLeaks during the late 2000s, particularly the exploits of its founder, Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his enthusiastic new recruit, Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl). The two, with little more than their laptops, cryptophones, and one server, make it their mission to expose corruption by leaking documents that indict institutions and governments, from the Swiss bank Julius Baer to the Kenyan ruling party to the American military in Afghanistan. As WikiLeaks establishes itself as a force to be reckoned with, Assange and Berg face the challenges of political threats, a competitive press, and their own gradual distrust of each other as they debate about how best to share the world’s largest release of classified material, the quarter of a million American diplomatic cables known as Cablegate.
Would it surprise you to hear that for the task of translating the aforementioned account to the silver screen, DreamWorks hired Bill Condon, the director of Dreamgirls, Kinsey, and both installments of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, and Josh Singer, a writer on Fringe, Lie to Me, and Law and Order: SVU? If you do see The Fifth Estate, keep that in mind, and suddenly many of the film’s apparent liberties or stylistic oddities will make perfect sense. In portraying the globe-trotting journey of these charismatic cypherpunks, we get jittery titles announcing each new destination, followed by a series of snap-zooms as Daniel or Julian makes his way through some emblematic subway or airport. To keep the online activity exciting for those who think that watching people typing on screens is boring, we get computer-generated vignettes of virtual cubicles as well as chat room text literally projected onto faces. Would it surprise you to hear that the film is often light on substance?
The Fifth Estate is based on two books, David Leigh and Luke Harding’s WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy and the real Daniel Berg’s Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website. Given this pedigree, the film’s portrayal of Assange as an egocentric, paranoid, and self-aggrandizing jerk is to be expected. Occasionally there is legitimate deference to the real Assange’s brilliance at hacking and tireless devotion to his cause (“Commitment, true commitment”), but such details are undercut by trivially depicting his habit of eating hummus with his fingers or picking at leftovers. And, in what inspired some of the biggest laughs from the audience, he explains his white hair as first the result of childhood trauma incurred in his mother’s cult but then comes out with the truth that it was stress owing to a ‘Subversive’ betrayal and court ruling. Then, near the film’s conclusion, Daniel Berg drops the bombshell: Julian Assange dyes his hair. The horror! Honestly, who really cares about his hair? This movie was supposed to delve into the battle between privacy and transparency and the hard-hitting ramifications of those vulnerable humans who take up the mantel of whistle-blowing. Benedict Cumberbatch tries his best to make Assange three-dimensional, but the truth is that, by design, the role has less depth than his Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness. The script concludes with Cumberbatch, as Assange, dismissing the WikiLeaks movie out of hand and saying that, where finding the truth is concerned, “It is all about you.” The film adds the coda “…and a little about me.” It’s an inelegant, oversimplified closing line that matches the tone of all that came before.
History and cinema do not always make for the easiest of bedfellows, especially when the history is recent and politically charged. The problem with the medium of film as opposed to a book or news article is that a movie has the appearance of, as Stephen Colbert would put it, “truthiness.” The Fifth Estate goes to great lengths to recreate events, parties, and private interactions, even staging the same magazine covers with Cumberbatch in place of Assange. I am reminded of JFK, which so convincingly envisioned different conspiracy theories around the Kennedy assassination, by the end you weren’t sure if Lee Harvey Oswald really had acted alone. WikiLeaks denies that Assange dyes his hair and that he was in a cult as a child, but now I don’t know what to believe. After portraying Daniel Berg as the untainted hero of the piece, the film includes a suspicious footnote of Berg’s plans, announced in 2010, to start his own site, OpenLeaks. As the film admits, “the site has yet to launch.” I would surmise that the real Assange and Berg are likely more complicated individuals, neither heroes nor villains, each with their own respective strengths and defects. It’s a shame their fictional counterparts don’t do them justice.
The film’s potential to shape perception of the real Assange is where the issue of even making it in the first place gets dicey. When The Social Network painted a picture of Mark Zuckerberg as an antisocial, arrogant geek, it got flack for taking liberties. But the real Zuckerberg didn’t pay except in the court of public opinion, and in any event, he’s a billionaire, and Facebook is still going strong. Assange, on the other hand, is in a precarious position, currently a refugee at an Ecuadorian Embassy in London. The makers of The Fifth Estate, by vilifying him for the sake of hackneyed drama, have been irresponsible, possibly endangering him in the same way they say WikiLeaks endangered others. Judging by the film’s grosses, though, it fortunately won’t have a large impact on opinion concerning Assange and WikiLeaks.
This review has been largely negative, but I don’t believe the failure of The Fifth Estate is directly attributable to the efforts of the director, writer, or actors. A lesson from Bill Condon’s much more successful outing Dreamgirls has unexpected relevance here. That film, based on the 1980s musical of the same name, caught flack for clearly being inspired by the story of Diana Ross, The Supremes, and Motown. Seeing that the character modeled after Berry Gordy, Jamie Foxx’s Curtis Taylor, Jr., is shown to participate in payola and other questionable practices, Dreamworks took out a full-page ad in Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, apologizing for any confusion and proclaiming, "It is vital that the public understand that the real Motown story has yet to be told." Dreamworks did that for a story which changed names and took liberties in the name of dramatic license. It may be time for another ad, because the real WikiLinks story has yet to be told.