The Fifth Estate, Bill Condon’s feverishly edgy and exciting drama about the events surrounding WikiLeaks and its infamous founder, the renegade Australian journalist-anarchist Julian Assange, is one of the only movies I’ve seen that really gets, in the rollicking density of its storytelling DNA, how the Internet has changed everything. It’s easy to see why Condon, returning from the Twilight zone to his role as a serious entertainer (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters), wanted to make this movie. In form, it’s a vintage journalism thriller, a nihilistic newspaper drama for the dark digital age. Assange, played by the rising British star Benedict Cumberbatch, is a tall, slit-eyed, hooded creature who presents himself — accurately — as a new kind of information warrior, a subversive of the cyber era who will publish anything that exposes fraud, corruption, violence, the sins of corporations and governments. He isn’t too discriminating: The documents come right at him, from anonymous leakers around the globe, and apart from his promise to expose those documents to the widest audience imaginable, the only service he provides is protecting the whistleblowers. Their identities, he assures, will be shrouded in the layers of obfuscation made possible by computer technology.
Assange palms off WikiLeaks as an “organization,” but it’s really just him, working with a batch of fake e-mail addresses, a single server, and a bearded, rather courtly young European partner-assistant, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), who helps him man the keyboards. Yet as these two post their unedited secret documents and videos, revealing injustice around the world — corruption inside a Swiss bank! Police death squads in Kenya! The identities of members of the neo-Nazi British National Party! A video of two Reuters journalists whose murder was committed and covered up by U.S. troops in Iraq! — the film generates a nervous, almost manic version of the let’s-bring-down-the-kingpins rush of a ’70s conspiracy thriller. Condon keeps his camera up close to the actors, so that we’re never cut off from the energy of their mission — or, as one might see it, from Assange’s myopic of-the-moment compulsion to channel any political dirt that’s out there.
Yet The Fifth Estate is no mindless valorization of Julian Assange. The movie pivots around a vital question: When does the unrestricted flow of information begin to destroy everything it’s out to save? Assange comes on like a journalist, but he’s a bit like Woodward or Bernstein as a member of the Weather Underground. He pretends it’s all about justice, but it’s really all about him.
Cumberbatch, in stringy long white-blonde hair that looks a bit too much like the wig it is, does a commanding impersonation of Assange’s imperiousness, his whole louche Continental narcissism. His Julian is handsome in a scowling way, with a pout of aggrievement fixed on his soft, pale, babyish features, and the actor lowers his voice to a slightly slurry bass register, as if he were so full of venom that it had depressed him. Yet Assange is also quick-minded and fierce. He’s a real contradiction — a reptilian idealist. His backstory explains everything, in a biopic-Freudian way: As a boy, Julian watched his mother move in with a member of a reactionary Aussie cult, and everything he’s now doing — his primal loathing of authority — emerges from that upbringing. He’s trying to take down that abusive fake father. Reductive? Perhaps, but in my experience, the lefties who want to attack everything above them have some pretty basic issues, and Assange is a fire-breather who doesn’t know when to stop. When an Obama State Department spokesman accuses him of “terrorism,” it sounds like a defensive government posture, but in a sense it’s accurate. The willingness to expose corruption isn’t terrorism, but Assange, locked in his absolutist war, couldn’t care less about who he hurts. He’s not just outside the system; he’s outside the human connection that’s part of what holds the system together.
Many of us had never heard of WikiLeaks before its headline-grabbing moment in 2010-2011, when the site — in conjunction with The New York Times, The Guardian of London, and several other European newspapers — posted war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan, along with 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. The dumping of information was likened by some to the revelations exposed by the Pentagon Papers, yet the problem, at the time, was that the unredacted names posted on WikiLeaks (though not by those mainstream newspapers) could expose innocent informers to death. Assange didn’t care: He was possessed by bringing down what he saw as the greater evil of institutionalized violence. He was a bit like Noam Chomsky with a cyber weapon: He stood on such a high ground that he was effectively above everyone.
So how could a character this reckless now be the protagonist of a mainstream movie? What I think a lot of the early, negative reaction to The Fifth Estate has missed is that the film is canny enough to present Assange not as a hero but as a highly ambiguous scoundrel-crusader who boldly test-drove — the way Shawn Fanning did with Napster — the new power of the Internet. A number of his scoops were brave and valid and incendiary, and would have made any mainstream news organization proud. Yet as the movie goes on, it’s tempered by a sobering awareness that an institution like WikiLeaks represents the fearlessness of great journalism without the accountability. Assange isn’t a reporter, exactly; he’s a conduit — he represents the flip side of the government arrogance he’s fighting. The real drama of The Fifth Estate is that it captures how the addictive flow of information exposure now works from the inside out. It gets at what’s starting to happen in the world, as backroom leakers and rogue reporters, despising government surveillance and corruption and control, summon a new kind of power to bring those forces down. The Fifth Estate captures the tenor of whistleblowing in the brave new world, when the Internet gets turned into a billboard for anyone with the inclination to spill secrets. Call it the anti-social network.