Truth and Power
Nearly fourteen years ago, an early episode of The West Wing predicted that one of the defining conflicts of the 21st century would be over the control of information and the right to privacy. It's hard to argue with the idea that they were on the money, with so many news stories these days concerning clashes between individuals and powerful groups over just this issue. One sometimes gets the impression that the trend in recent decades has been of a rise in the level of personal access to information, matched with an equal decline in actual control over the wider world.
With the topic being so all-pervasive and important to society today, it's not surprising that people are starting to make films about it. One of these is The Fifth Estate, directed by Bill Condon. I must confess to vaguely recognising Condon's name but not being able to place it; this is because he perpetrated Breaking Dawn Part 2 last year. Had I actually remembered that, I might have skipped the movie, but this would have been a bit unfair.
The Fifth Estate is based on true events and is basically a critical biography of Julian Assange, the Australian mathematician-turned-computer hacker and founder of controversial website WikiLeaks. I say critical not because it's a hatchet job on the man – although Assange himself has dismissed it as 'a massive propaganda attack' – but because it seems to me to do a reasonable job of presenting a balanced view.
Assange himself is played by Cumbersome Bandersnatch, in a white wig which makes him look rather like he's auditioning to play Elric of Melnibone (now there's a movie I'd pay to see). Having already impressed as a somewhat improbable Mexican Sikh in one of the summer's blockbusters, doing a slightly peculiar Australian is no great stretch for the actor and his performance is highly impressive.
That said, Assange is such a divisive, complex figure that it'd be hard to make a movie in which he was the central figure. In The Fifth Estate that role is played by Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl, who's having a good year), whose book the movie is in any case based on. We see Assange through Berg's eyes, as they initially meet and Berg becomes a convert to Assange's personal crusade to liberate information and destroy corruption and conspiracies.
Their initial success in taking down a major bank gets people's attention and the film follows their rise to prominence and the increasing hostility they attract from the US government in particular. It culminates with the publication of vast numbers of sensitive US documents detailing the Afghan war, amongst other things, leaked to them by Bradley Manning (I expect there will be a Manning-centric movie along in a year or so).
The dramatic structure all this is stapled to is a fairly well-tested one – that of the main character coming of age and friendship turning to disillusionment. Berg grows increasingly wary of Assange's manipulativeness, paranoia, fanaticism and refusal to compromise. The film raises the question of whether what started off as a campaign for truth eventually turned into a self-serving cult of personality.
As I say, I'm not an expert on this area, but the film seemed to me to be broadly sympathetic to Assange as a damaged human being, while still questioning the morality of many of his actions – the story concludes in 2010, so Assange's later legal problems aren't really touched upon, nor is his current residency in a remote corner of Ecuador (so remote it's actually in London). There's a nicely self-reflexive touch at the end where Bandersnatch-as-Assange appears in a faux interview and roundly condemns the film as being wildly inaccurate.
With a distinctly awkward central character and a plot about a noted website, there's definitely a touch of The Social Network about The Fifth Estate, but this film is not quite up to that standard. It seems to be channelling the Bourne movies, too, with the action shifting across numerous international locations – not to mention an appearance as a character of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger (played here by himself-to-be Peter Capaldi).
And on the whole it does a pretty good job of turning the story of a bunch of computer experts and journalists putting things up on the internet into a fairly gripping tale. As I've said, the beats of the Assange-Berg relationship are familiar, but both lead actors are very good. Bruhl, rather as in Rush, is playing the less flamboyantly expressive of the two, and is possibly all the more impressive as a result. There is a strong supporting cast, too: as well as Capaldi (who isn't really in it that much), David Thewliss, Stanley Tucci, and Laura Linney all appear.
There is inevitably the problem of how you make people texting each other and typing on laptops into something visually interesting, and Condon opts for the use of funky graphics and metaphorical imagery. This works well enough but I couldn't quite shake the sense of having seen this sort of thing done more interestingly in other films in the past.
However, in the end this film is about characters and ideas more than technology. It's not an outstandingly great production, but the lead performances are impressive and it has no major flaws. And I think the questions at the heart of the film are important ones we all do well to consider from time to time. Very watchable, although just a tiny bit worthy.