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.
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, even for a second.
The film opens in London, July 2010, in the offices of The Guardian. The team 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 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.
Every character except for Assange abides by a moral compass, including the British media, painting the world as black and white. We don’t need WikiLeaks to tell us that’s an illusion.