My husband and I went to see The Fifth Estate on our weekly date night this week (Alternate Title: Julian Assange is a Big Weirdo). We had to choose between that and watching the Red Sox play the Cardinals in the World Series, two teams we like watching about as much as we enjoyed the his ‘n hers colonoscopies we got when we turned 50. We both like Benedict Cumberbatch, so we thought, how bad could it be? and visited our local multiplex. We live on the edge, I know.
The Fifth Estate tells the story of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, a website that allows whistleblowers/pissed-off employees to post confidential or even classified documents on the site anonymously. The idea is that if the information is out there, without any kind of editing or explanation, corruption can be exposed to the light of day. WikiLeaks didn’t edit or filter the documents, just published them for the world to judge. The film poses such heady questions as: Is it morally responsible or ethically to post information that could potentially expose individuals who assist in intelligence operations? Where do we draw the line between individual privacy and national security? Is Julian Assange a hero or a villain? And more importantly, what’s up with his hair?
The opening sequence of the movie is a history of media, from the invention of the printing press to Twitter, all boiled down into a 5 minute montage of clips. It’s kind of like the “I See Dead People” montage at the Oscars. The story is told through the point of view of one of the WikiLeaks founders, Daniel Berg. In the film, Julian Assange sees Daniel as more of a trusty minion than co-creator. even though nobody else seem to care except Daniel. Daniel is portrayed as the wide-eyed innocent with a heart of gold, while Assange is the crazy visionary with a sketchy background involving cults, hackers, and bottles of L’Oreal Platinum Blonde #37.
Assange is the Willie Wonka to Daniel’s Charlie, with Assange introducing Daniel to a world of pure imagination and possible revolution on the internet. The big wide web is symbolically represented by a vast room filled with desks with computers on them, with anonymous users sending in information to WikiLeaks. The filmmaker uses symbols like this to good effect, because watching two guys coding for two hours would be even worse than watching a Cardinals-Red Sox series for a Giants fan.
Boiled down to its essence, the plot is the same as the Jobs nerdmance: Morally grounded boy meets megalomaniacal visionary; the pair create something
big from nothing but a dream; tearful break-up ensues. (See also: The Social Network’s Zuck and Eduardo nerdmance gone wrong).
Benedict Cumberbatch played the Cumberbatch role, which is to say, the Steely-Eyed, Socially Awkward, Genius-Liar. Cumberbatch gnaws his way through a whole warehouse full of scenery, with the other actors looking on in awe. Or maybe terror. I like Cumberbatch and enjoyed watching him on the BBC Sherlock series, as well as the reincarnated Star Trek films. This performance seemed to be a mash-up of his prior performances, though I’m told he does a brilliant Stephen Hawking that is quite different from his other roles.
Overall, I’m glad we saw the movie, since the details of the WikiLeaks saga have always been confusing to me. I’m not sure that it is any more clear to me now or how much of this was fact and how much fiction. Daniel and the hive of newspaper editors come across as principled and thoughtful, whereas Assange’s primary motive seems to be to get attention due to a crappy childhood. Like my mom always says, “No matter what, they always blame the mother.”
I imagine that the real Julian Assange must be getting bored hanging out in the Peruvian embassy eating ceviche, reading reviews of this movie, and attempting to discredit Daniel Berg. In the movie, he’s always going to or coming from some exotic location or another and stirring the internet pot, so sitting inside an embassy for a year must be pretty tedious for him. I suppose the possibility of going to jail in Sweden or to Gitmo would be worse, so there’s not much incentive for him to leave. If he gets truly bored, there’s always the World Series.