The latest Hollywood movie inspired by Wikileaks already looks dated says Jane Whyatt
‘The Fifth Estate’ stars A-list celebrity Benedict Cumberbatch as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in the compelling true story of how this Australian hacker built a super-safe website for whistleblowers to post leaks that expose wrongdoing, and attracted US intelligence officer Private Bradley Manning* to dump thousands of classified documents detailing American war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan *following gender re-assignment Bradley Manning is now called Chelsey. Three top newspapers – Britain’s Guardian, the New York Times and Germany’s Der Spiegel – published the leaks and Private Manning was court-martialled and jailed for life. Since then another whistleblower, former National Security Agency operative Edward Snowden, has revealed secrets that are even more shocking since they involve almost every Internet user on the planet in a massive surveillance operation. Snowden did not use Wikileaks but went direct to the newspapers. So ‘The Fifth Estate’ – the movie and the concept – is already yesterday’s news and the Fourth Estate (the press) is now firmly back at the controls of this game of leak and counter-attack.
All the actors – with one exception- look and sound a great deal less handsome, passionate and articulate than the real people they depict. The one exception is Sam Coulson, deputy director of the National Security Agency , played by Anthony Mackie. The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger combines real authority with a Harry Potter-like boyish charm in real life. In The Fifth Estate he looks and sounds like a raddled and cynical old hack, played by Peter Capaldi, the new Doctor Who and formerly the potty-mouthed, irascible Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. The investigative journalist Nick Davies becomes an ego-driven smart-arse with an annoying fake Northern accent in David Thewlis’s treatment. Where have you seen him before? At Hogwarts of course where he played Professor Quirrell in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The accent Benedict Cumberbatch adopts for his portrayal of Assange sounds more plausible but the whole part appears deliberately designed to show that the Wikileaks founder is a weirdo – autistic, a liar and motivated by personal ambition rather than a desire to reveal inconvenient truths. Heavy-handed staging at various points during the film depicts Assange as a loner, replicating himself endlessly at desks in offices to fool the world into believing that he commands a global army of volunteers and supporters. His fraught relationship with Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruehl) is shown as the central backbone of the film, making it appear that the pair of them were locked in a power struggle from the start and that this was all that mattered to them – a couple of control freaks each trying to outwit the other. Oddly, all the love and sex interest in The Fifth Estate centres on Domscheit Berg and his on-off girlfriend. This is strange since it was Julian Assange, not Berg, who famously attracted scores of women, fathered at least three children and is now on the run from an extradition order because two of his Swedish ‘groupies’ complained that he had had sex with them and not used a condom. This episode is noted in the film only with a caption briefly displayed on the screen.
Even the visuals in the film look staid and belong to the twentieth-century ‘phone age’. The action cuts rapidly from location to location, flagged with datelines. The Internet is represented as a snowstorm of typed pages or a screenful of noughts and ones or a beam of light circling the globe. Actual news footage is used clumsily and made to look less convincing than the fictionalised action. With CGI and other special effects it should be possible to create a movie that uses archive seamlessly – as for example in ‘The Iron Lady’ when the actress Meryl Streep, playing Margaret Thatcher, steps out of her car with her back to the camera and then the shot cuts to the news footage of the real Mrs T turning round to salute her supporter on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street. Cinematic tricks such as these are surely not too difficult, and if a movie is to command the attention of people who care about online rights it must be able to engage the digital native generations. For anyone who has played Grand Theft Auto V the quality of this film will be disappointing, and as FI reviewer I must apologise to the people sitting beside me in the cinema as I fear I may have nodded off and spoiled their enjoyment by snoring.
But the film is worse than boring. It has a political agenda, rather hamfistedly executed. The message seems to be that Assange is a person to be derided and perhaps pitied because his childhood experiences in a clandestine cult called ‘The Family’ have left him traumatised, so that he needs to exact revenge on the world of authority by revealing embarrassing secrets. His backers are shown to be oddball uebergeeks who attend wacky hackfests to build robotic fighting cocks and other boys’ toys. This is a smear. It obscures the clear fact that Wikileaks exposed war crimes and – with help from a few brave newspaper editors – did so in a way that did not put lives at risk nor interfere with genuine counter-terrorism operations. It denies the involvement at the core of the Wikileaks movement of parliamentarians such as Birgitta Jonsdottir, thousands of human rights activists and dozens of Hollywood celebrities who made YouTube videos declaring ‘I’m Bradley Manning’. More importantly, it denies the sheer weight of public opinion, expressed in demonstrations on the streets and in social media across the globe. If you really want to know the story of Wikileaks, watch the drama documentary ‘We Steal Secrets’, previewed on FI (link) and now on general release. Don’t buy this clumsy film. We are all The Fifth Estate and we have the right to demand honesty and openness from governments, big corporations and all who seek to run our lives.