Generally, when the subject of a biopic is unhappy with the film made of their life, I want to see that movie a little more. Nobody who is noteworthy enough to make headlines should be happy about their own unauthorized biography; for them to love the way they're portrayed would be proof of authorial toothlessness. Last week, Julian Assange issued a statement calling The Fifth Estate, the movie about the birth of WikiLeaks, "a film by the old media about the new media" and "a geriatric snoozefest that only the US government could love." Assange also published a letter he sent to Fifth Estate star Benedict Cumberbatch in January, which opens with starstruck praise, expounds on the "significant" and eternal "bond that develops between an actor and a living subject," and ends with a plea for Cumberbatch to resign from the film:
You will be used, as a hired gun, to assume the appearance of the truth in order to assassinate it. To present me as someone morally compromised and to place me in a falsified history. To create a work, not of fiction, but of debased truth.
The thing is, pretty much everyone but Julian Assange agrees that Julian Assange is an egomaniac. And that's perfectly okay—egomaniacs are often the people who get things done, who break through boundaries. But Assange's response to the movie is a particularly paranoid one that balances his need for attention—his aroused sense of flattery is palpable—with a particularly vivacious messiah complex. In sum, it's sad that a man who started a world-changing website devoted to naked facts has so giddily tossed aside Occam's razor to pronounce a movie to be the result of an international conspiracy against him, with absolutely zero proof to back up his claims.
Assange's outrage made me eager to see The Fifth Estate. And then I saw The Fifth Estate. Movies about current events have to succeed on two fronts: They have to serve as a source of information, a piece of journalism that contextualizes the story in something as close to real time as Hollywood can muster. And they have to be a compelling piece of cinema, a work of art that makes the case for its own existence. The Fifth Estate fails at both these tasks.
Let's begin with the positives: The cast is strong. Cumberbatch makes a fine Assange, moody, manic-depressive, and desperately in love with himself. As Assange's friend and an early force behind WikiLeaks, Daniel Brühl plays Daniel Berg with a quiet intellect. He's not showy, but he's dignified, and that dignity adds a sense of morality that the film needs to lean on in the latter half. Unfortunately, the movie relies too much on the burgeoning bromance between Assange and Berg, veering close to slash fiction in scenes where the two pout after a fight over Berg's new girlfriend, who Assange claims is leading him away from the WikiLeaks cause. The story is simplistic and uninteresting, in part because we've seen this dynamic play out so well before, most notably in The Social Network.
The Social Network looms largely over The Fifth Estate. Unlike Network, Estate doesn't ever seem comfortable with the fact that it's largely a movie about men staring intently at laptops. A major scene early in the film involves Assange and Berg sitting quietly across a table from each other as they carry out an intense IM discussion. The ways that director Bill Condon tries to inject drama into the scenes—voice-overs, laying the text across the actors—all seem cheesy and overdone. And the way Condon chooses to show how Assange and Berg visualize WikiLeaks itself, as an endless array of computers on desks stretched out to the horizon with cordless fluorescent lights hanging down from the sky as far as the eye can see in a kind of Dilbert Valhalla, is just depressing.
Further, the weak script doesn't bother to inform us about WikiLeaks, beyond an evening-news summary of its greatest hits. The film ends, too, just as WikiLeaks is really getting started, with Chelsea Manning becoming a character late in the final act. A few of the moral quandaries of WikiLeaks are raised—aren't editors necessary at some point in the process, rather than just vomiting up whole secrets unprocessed?—but the film forgets the questions almost as soon as they're asked. It's not hagiography, but it's not particularly deep, either.
It's a good thing that a very good, very compelling movie about WikiLeaks has already been made. It's a documentary called We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. Written and directed by Alex Gibney, Secrets was featured at SIFF this year, and it's just been released on DVD this month. Secrets is the superior film in every way: It covers the WikiLeaks story in-depth, from its inception to as close to the present day as is humanly possible; it directly addresses Assange's moral complexities, including the sexual assault charges filed against him (Estate mentions the charges as an aside at the end of the movie); and it's a more compelling thriller, bringing in an array of characters to explain the risk Assange and his volunteer army took to bring hidden documents to light. We Steal Secrets is about the same running time as The Fifth Estate, but it accomplishes so much more, both as a source of reportage and as a work of art. If Estate holds a pint glass full of information about WikiLeaks, Secrets is a swimming pool. Despite all of Assange's many complaints, the real problem with The Fifth Estate is that it might wind up being seen by more people than the best film about WikiLeaks yet made.