Like last week’s “Captain Phillips,” “The Fifth Estate” is another slick thriller based on real-life events. But unlike the real Captain Phillips, who’s a rather bland man forced into extraordinary circumstances, the personality at the center of “The Fifth Estate” – Julian Assange – is anything but bland.
Assange is, of course, the mastermind behind Wikileaks. And he is such a striking, distinctive character, that at times he feels made up. Like a James Bond villain or an offbeat comic book hero, Assange seems too exaggerated to be believed – both in looks and ambitions. He’s a living caricature.
Assange is a lanky Australian computer nerd with a famous shock of white hair. He’s extremely bright, highly motivated, and irritatingly arrogant. He’s a true believer in his own cause – the exposure of all the institutional secrets of the world, whether governmental or corporate. To his enemies, he’s a dangerous zealot; to his supporters, a fearless truth-teller and martyr.
He’s also a walking contradiction – he’s a loner by nature but he has to lean heavily on others for his success. You get the sense he’d like to be a one-man revolution, but can’t quite pull it off all by himself. He’s charismatic and yet perhaps also on the autism spectrum. He’s also a man obsessed with exposing secrets, but zealously guards his own privacy.
Director Bill Condon does his best to ground this almost cartoon-like character in a recognizably concrete reality. We see Assange in the context of computer whiz-kids and fellow hackers, in the context of third-world revolutions, in the context of traditional journalism – his dealings with The Guardian and the New York Times make up a big part of the film – and in the context of the outraged U.S. government. We also see him through the eyes of his closest colleague and confidante, a rather more personal take that raises some troubling character issues about Assange as well.
Condon is aided immeasurably by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch is best known for playing Sherlock Holmes and Star Trek’s Khan, and there’s a bit of both those characters in his Julian Assange. Most importantly, Cumberbatch manages to pull all the various shards of Assange’s quirky character into a relatively cohesive whole. The script wisely doesn’t try to psychoanalyze Assange but offers enough various angles of Assange to give us a sense of his complexity.
Assange is never pinned down by either the film or by Cumberbatch, but both do a good job of suggesting the deep contradictions that make this fascinating man tick.
At one point, Cumberbatch as Assange stares directly into the camera and tells us all to seek out the truth for ourselves. By not drawing any conclusions, “The Fifth Estate” allows us to do just that.