Is it good to publish state secrets? What if you endanger lives in the process? Does dedication to truth require sacrifices? These questions propel the drama in The Fifth Estate, but this focus ensures that other moral dilemmas are taken for granted when they ought to be pondered with equal intensity. In the high-speed, high-stakes world of leaks and breaking-news journalism, there’s not much time to escape the groupthink and wonder about the efficacy and morality of the mission.
The Fifth Estate begins with a montage reminding us about the evolution of media, culminating in the rapid creative destruction that characterizes modern news, where relevance must be fought for tooth-and-nail, and where a front-page story can be rendered obsolete in seconds. From this churning brew of ideas and experiments came the anomaly of WikiLeaks.org. WikiLeaks is a website that publishes sensitive and highly controversial documents, encouraging whistleblowers to leak because of that promise that the WikiLeaks platform will allow their identity to “remain concealed in clouds of code.”
Viewers are inserted directly into the WikiLeaks saga through the perspective of protagonist Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl), who serves as a window into operations at WikiLeaks and an opportunity to examine founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) up close. Berg begins as an Assange fanboy and sycophant, seeking out the man at a conference in Berlin and offering his extensive expertise as a hacker. He’s anxious to be involved in any way he can, so imagine his surprise when Assange immediately offers him a fact-checking assignment, which leads to Berg acquiring a critical role as a partner and friend.
WikiLeaks is Assange’s child, more important to him than his flesh-and-blood son. He’s an Australian hacker and “social justice” activist. Assange’s initial goal for WikiLeaks is to encourage whistleblowers to be “the one moral man” at what he views as immoral institutions, in hopes that leakers will incriminate their employers in some kind of wrongdoing. The Fifth Estate spends its first half focusing on some of the earlier successes WikiLeaks enjoyed in its mission to start ideological revolutions and encourage change, such as the exposure of offshore tax havens provided by Swiss banks. Assange delights in tearing down “wealthy assholes” and politicians, but his gorge really rises when he starts receiving leaks about the U.S. war in the Middle-East.
The moral crisis and climax of the drama comes in the form of the Cablegate controversy. Assange finds himself in possession of the largest leak of all time, courtesy of PFC Bradley Manning. Thanks to Manning’s proud self-incrimination, major journalistic outlets learn that Assange has access to the cables and documents. Berg suddenly grasps the implications of publishing thousands of cables without redactions to protect identities, but at this point Assange seems to have forgotten the original purpose behind WikiLeaks. Confronted with the enormity of the Manning leak, Assange is suddenly obsessed with breaking stories and supplanting the mainstream media. After all, nothing can out-break a leak. He debates with Berg, who wants to wait to verify sources and redact personally identifiable details from the treasure trove of leaks Manning provided. It would be “more dangerous not to publish,” Assange fumes in the chat room in which the WikiLeakers do most of their correspondence. “This is reckless,” Berg counters, to which Assange replies “Let the historians decide.”
Berg, who has heard Assange lecture over and over again about the importance of finding one moral man in otherwise immoral organizations, finds himself forced to be that man. His life, at this point, has come full-circle from a quest to encourage and publish leaks to a fight to keep them hidden.
The real Julian Assange has very vocally expressed his umbrage at the making of The Fifth Estate. Assange is portrayed as an odd, soft-spoken, white-haired Australian who tends to stumble into places unannounced, a plethora of backpacks dangling from his shoulder. He sets up station at any available flat surface, working on his laptop (featured so extensively that it’s almost a character in itself) while rambling about various political movements and exposés he’s plotting. Oftentimes he’s sticking his fingers in people’s food and shamelessly tasting it, or telling stories about how his hair turned white, reminiscent of the Joker in The Dark Knight talking about how he got his scars. Assange behaves in a near-autistic way, and it’s hard not to see a little bit of Andy Warhol in him.
It’s from the substrata of hackers and activists that most of the characters are drawn, and this homogeneity detracts from the movie’s appeal. Almost every participant in the WikiLeaks project is shown to be a “social activist," a grizzled journalist, or a computer nerd, and their conversations are all resplendent with technobabble and journalese. Half of them won’t even speak to anyone who doesn’t have a cryptophone. How could anyone develop sympathy for people who sit down at tables to compare the activism stickers on the back of their laptops?
Another issue is the movie’s overreliance on graphics and virtual representations. The WikiLeaks organization, for example, is constantly shown in simulacrum form: it’s a newsroom consisting of hundreds of desks manned by hundreds of Assanges, and one Domscheit-Berg. All The President’s Men made investigative reporting exciting without resorting to allusions and images, but The Fifth Estate treats its viewers like children who couldn’t possibly grasp the network at play. And there are hundreds of shots of headlines and stories, which the camera zooms through to illustrate the brisk pace at which information travels. Many times the image is nothing but a sea of words. It’s stylistically obvious, and exhausting.
One of the most amusing moments in the film comes when Assange and Berg are discussing their plans for a new server system and some developing leaks. Somebody standing nearby overhears their conversation and interjects, at which point Assange and Berg shout out in unison, “Mind your own business!” There’s advice Assange would definitely never follow.