The Fifth Estate asks good questions, but fails to live up to its billing

Review of The Fifth Estate, Directed by Bill Condon

Films made about contemporary subjects and events tread strange ground. Think, for example, of The Social Network, Zero Dark Thirty, and even Jobs to a degree. They purport to tell us a story well within our living memory, a story that we most likely remember mainly as news headlines, getting a Facebook account, or buying our first ipod. In other words, these stories have yet to pass into history’s “mythic” status, yet they are by no means documentaries. Like any Hollywood film that sells itself as “based on a true story,” we know that the historical timeline has likely been tweaked and streamlined for theatrical effect, but they still tell real stories that we can personally remember

Enter the latest film in this line: The Fifth Estate. Much has been made of Julian Assange and his news website—if we may use that term broadly—Wikileaks. The great waves it caused as it confronted a plethora of ethical questions and jeopardized national security continue to ripple through the news world today. We’ve seen pictures of the Australian with a shock of white hair, and perhaps caught a whiff or two of the scandal and controversy ever emanating from him. He makes a good subject for a film, and in the capable portrayal provided by Benedict Cumberbatch, indeed he is.

The Fifth Estate, however, does not quite live up to its billing. The trailer sells the film with life-or-death vibes stemming from an epic cyber confrontation with the United States government, and it woos the thoughtful with philosophical talk about giving men a mask so that they can speak truth to power. Yet we never get a sense that Assange or his partner Daniel Berg (played effectively by Daniel Bruhl and from whose perspective the story is told), are in any serious danger. And while Assange does indeed wax eloquent on the cause of exposing corrupt institutions and the power of publishing full documents leaked by anonymous sources, the film shows us few firsthand examples of the evil within said institutions or the desperate faces of Wikileaks’ sources. At the end, when the film ends on a grand proclamation that WikiLeaks has ushered in a radical new societal institution that will inherently change it left me wondering—really? The Guardian and New York Times played a major role in pushing Wikileaks to the world stage, but as leading news organizations in the Fourth Estate, they remain the top power players in the present day.

Instead, most of The Fifth Estate’s emotional impact relies on the adventures and tension of Assange’s relationship to Daniel. In Assange, we find a man equal parts idealist and egoist—a man with vision, talent, and resolve, yet awfully concerned about his own reputation and lacking patience for those on his team who would defy his plans (this may be one reason why Assange has come out bashing the film). Daniel shares his idealism and becomes the first and most trusted member of the Wikileaks team, but in some ways, he shares Assange’s idealism too much. He is furious when he discovers that Assange grossly exaggerated the number of Wikileaks’ volunteers by creating fake emails and online identities. When the big chips finally come down on the table—gigabytes worth of classified government cables—he refuses to publish before they can review them. Assange does it anyways, however, in order to maintain what he perceives as the purity of Wikileaks—we always publish in full

We can question the truthfulness of all of these behind-the-scenes exchanges as portrayed in the film, of course, but they do give it some value because they raise a plethora of substantive moral questions: Do all startups exaggerate their size at the beginning to get themselves off the ground—and even if they do, does that make it okay? What about publishing the private phone numbers and addresses of political leaders as part of exposing a corrupt insider scheme? Is jeopardizing the lives of American agents an acceptable cost to exposing the innocent lives lost by military action in Afghanistan?

True to the ethically nebulous world of the news business, The Fifth Estate seems to suggest that Assange was wrong in a number of his dealings, and I think most Christians would agree at these points. That said, it answers few questions definitively. When it comes to rendering any ultimate judgment on Wikileaks, it wraps things up on a “you decide” note with Assange in an interview setting. Speaking to the audience, he makes the case for vindicating his decision to publish the government cables, and tells us that we must seek the truth out for ourselves. If we do, and only if we do, he says, we will find it.

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