Too soon. Had The Fifth Estate, aka The Wikileaks Story, been released this year instead of last, it may have got a nod from Oscar. That’s not to say it’s an especially remarkable film but as ‘based on true events’ is Hollywood’s current fad, it may have filled out the gaps in the best picture nominations not filled by a flick that either tells a story that actually happened or is economical with the actualities.
As stated, it’s not a groundbreaker, but then American Hustle is popcorn-munching fluff with comedy hairdos and sideboobs and there’s plenty of buzz about that.
At least The Fifth Estate is about something important. Very Important, as we’re reminded by a portentous opening montage that handily fills in the blanks in human communication from hieroglyphs to Tweets via Morse, Marconi and the Gutenburg press.
What follows is, in fact, just a retread of The Social Network; but instead of the end product being a picture of your cat in sunglasses drinking a strawberry daiquiri, tax-dodging banks are bought to justice, African rights abusers exposed and, finally, the American government bought to order.
Yes, it’s how a couple of mischief-making autistic geeks made the world sit up and pay attention and pretty much directly led to us all knowing that the National Security Agency (hi guys!) knows about your cat’s alcohol problem.
As with The Facebook Story, The Fifth Estate is a story about one single-minded awkward man and his complete lack of empathy for anyone who doesn’t share his vision and many that do.
And like the earlier film (and hell, that won three Oscars!) what’s really true in The Fifth Estate is up for debate.
Instead of twitchy Mark Zuckerberg here is Wikileaks’ founder and frontman, Julian Assange, (played with panache and a dubious accent by Benedict Cumberbatch), who rose from obscurity to being, briefly, the most talked about man on the planet and Washington’s public enemy number one.
As the secrets passed through Wikileaks get ever more hush-hush, Assange’s paranoia and his freakishly huge ego consume him and work to burn all his bridges.
Cumberbatch is uniformly excellent as Assange, creating a complex and thoroughly unlikeable antihero. His tunnel vision creates friction with everyone he encounters, no more so than with techy activist Daniel Schmitt (Daniel Berg), his junior partner in data, with whom he has fundamental disagreements about Wikileaks’ methods and goals.
By the time the world’s media has come on board, in the shape of a grubby David Thewlis as Guardian journalist Nick Davies and Peter Capaldi as the paper’s editor Alan Rusbridger (The Bourne Ultimatum), their relationship is broken and Assange is demonstrating signs of megalomania. It can only go wrong.
In all seriousness, The Fifth Estate has come too soon.
Wikileaks’ biggest single source, Bradley/Chelsea Manning, has only just begun a long prison sentence; Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy for more than a year (something that, along with the real Assange’s objections to this film is addressed, meta-style, by Cumberbatch-as-Assange at the end of the film); and what’s more Edward Snowden is now the whistleblower’s whistleblower, and it’s surely only a matter of time before a movie of his life emerges.
Whether you’re opinion of Wikileaks’ modus operandi sits firmly on the side of the little guy, or whether you’re with Newt Gingrich is besides the point. The Fifth Estate is a character piece wrapped up in a story that, while moderately compelling, is secondary to what Wikileaks has actually achieved.