Crossing the Line

Solid though unspectacular acting carries WikiLeaks drama 'The Fifth Estate' as far as it can go


In this technological age, the role of the individual has simultaneously become homogenized and powerful. Though millions of social media users around the world keep information superhighways busy with senseless chatter and pictures of waterskiing squirrels, there are times when select individuals use the power of connectivity for (what they believe is) the greater good. Most famously, Julian Assange pioneered modern citizen journalism with his website WikiLeaks, founded in 2007 with the purpose of allowing anonymous whistleblowers the opportunity to unveil news leaks and other classified secrets. "The Fifth Estate" chronicles the first three years of WikiLeaks.

Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a white-haired Internet activist from Australia with a clear disdain for corporate corruption, views himself as a revolutionary, a man of the people and for the people, who wants to change the way we consume news. He also believes the public has the right know everything — "privacy for individuals, transparency for organizations," he virtuously tells his right-hand man, Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl).

With the help of Berg and other volunteer support staff, WikiLeaks goes to great pains to ensure that the information revealed is truthful. Because the sources are anonymous, tips are submitted to an encrypted online platform, checked for veracity and then published. Notable WikiLeaks revelations included footage of a military shooting in Iraq, Peruvian politician bribes, Sarah Palin's not-so-flattering views on government and more.

Most famously, in 2010 WikiLeaks, in conjunction with The Guardian in London, The New York Times in New York City and Der Spiegel in Berlin, released the Afghan War Documents, which chronicled U.S. government mistakes, deaths of civilians, Taliban attacks and more over a six-year period. Not surprisingly, the U.S. government wasn't happy about the leaks, which threatened national security and the job status of two foreign attaches (played by Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci) and a White House staffer (Anthony Mackie), among others.

Brühl, who deserves a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his work in "Rush," is solid here, nicely complementing Cumberbatch's eccentric Assange, who's a charismatic megalomaniac with a troubled past. Cumberbatch is good but not spectacular; after playing the villain in "Star Trek: Into Darkness," his star remains on the rise, but this will not elevate him to A-list status. He's close, though.

The central question director Bill Condon ("Kinsey") raises — a question that's as much a sign of modern times as any film this year — is where should the line be drawn between the public's right to know and an organization's right to secrecy? We know how Assange feels about this, self-touting his efforts to expose all misdeeds as "social justice." On the flip side is the old adage that "individuals are smart, people are stupid," meaning a single person can exercise rational thought and act accordingly when given information, but a "herd" mentality can sometimes overcome a group of people and chaos ensues. Surely it's possible that sometimes the government doesn't reveal information to the public for a good reason. How you feel about this will depend on your personal and (likely) political beliefs; what's notable is that this is one of the few films to bring that question to the front.

Condon's only notable misstep comes toward the end as WikiLeaks is viewed as a vanity project for Assange rather than grassroots citizen journalism. No matter:

By that point, the intention of "The Fifth Estate" has been made clear, and the result is a message that's more dangerous than it is damning. 

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