‘The Fifth Estate' shows Assange's rise and fall

by Varun Bhucar | 10/22/13 10:00pm

In 2007, Julian Assange and his website found themselves in a position common among startups: they were broke and on the verge of becoming irrelevant. The site, WikiLeaks, was a platform designed to help whistleblowers expose toxic secrets and conspiracies to the world without the fear of retribution. Soon after, people started using the site to leak increasingly bigger secrets until WikiLeaks released confidential documents that shed horrifying light on the American war in Afghanistan. The leak thrust WikiLeaks into the forefront of the public consciousness, but more so, it introduced the world to Assange, an enigmatic figure who would prove to be just as controversial as his company. "The Fifth Estate," now playing at the Nugget, chronicles the rise and eventual fall of Assange.

"The Fifth Estate" has a narrative structure similar to that of "The Great Gatsby" (2013) in that the vessel into the narrative is not necessarily who we would consider the main character of the film. The film is partly based on a book by Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl), an early WikiLeaks employee and it is he who drives the narration. In fact, "The Fifth Estate" plays on the assumption that you already know about the history of WikiLeaks coming into the theater, and focuses instead on Domscheit-Berg and his relationship with Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

"The Fifth Estate" is unique in that it is not so relatively far removed in time from the historical events it is trying to portray. As such, the film takes dramatic liberties, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

In the months leading up to the release of "The Fifth Estate", the real Julian Assange, holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden for possible sexual assault charges, slammed the film as a libelous piece of trash. Judging by Cumberbatch's performance, it's easy to see why Assange would have a few problems with it.

Though he starts off idealistic, the Assange of "The Fifth Estate" descends into megalomania and an almost puritanical devotion to publishing the truth, even if it comes at the expense of the lives of others. It is a performance made all the more memorable by Cumberbatch. Coming off an amazing breakout year, Cumberbatch warbles his signature baritone to replicate Assange's Australian cadence and plays him with a sort of manic intensity. When you see Cumberbatch's Assange on screen, he delivers his "sermons" with the force and conviction of a preacher.

It is a performance similar to the one Jesse Eisenberg gave as Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network" (2010), and one that has drawn similar comparisons for its apparent deviations from the real-life persona of its subject. Whether Cumberbatch's Assange is true to the historical record is a matter of little relevance, as the character's attributes fit perfectly within the film's dramatic attributes.

Among other things, "The Fifth Estate" aims to tackle the question of whether we can truly have privacy in our technologically wired world. In some cases, should we have privacy? Early in the film, WikiLeaks takes down a Swiss bank committing massive tax fraud, but by the end, Assange and the organization are putting people's lives on the line in the name of the "truth." It is something that the Assange in the film seems to take as gospel, but it comes at the price of many a non-believer.

But perhaps all of that grandstanding was for nothing. As of press time, "The Fifth Estate" has the unpleasant distinction of having the worst box-office debut of 2013, possibly indicating that people just don't care about Assange or WikiLeaks. It would serve as fitting irony that a man who did his best to make sure he was heard by the world instead woke up to find that his pleas had fallen entirely on deaf ears.