“The Fifth Estate,” director Bill Condon’s involving look at the life of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, is light years away from his recent work – the hunky werewolves and sparkly vampires of “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn,” Parts 1 and 2.
And that’s a good thing.
A throwback thriller, “The Fifth Estate” doesn’t rely on the clockwork predictability of chases and explosions that marks the genre these days. Instead, it unfurls as a quietly compelling political drama reminiscent of ’70s classics like “The Conversation” and “The Parallax View.”
But “The Fifth Estate” is also as current as a news feed, filling in the disputed facts about Assange’s life beyond the headlines and chronicling the revolution that has upended the media landscape in the last decade. (Assange himself has come out against the film, calling it “a massive propaganda attack.”)
The result is one of the year’s most engrossing movies, a work not only of filmmaking skill but one that manages to walk the razor’s edge between celebrating what Assange says he’s about (the free flow of information) and painting him as a complex and troubled man, one riddled with paranoia, arrogance and deep family issues.
The film begins in 2010 just as The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel were about to publish redacted versions of secret American diplomatic communications they received through WikiLeaks.
From there, the film goes back a few years when Assange (a convincing Benedict Cumberbatch, “Star Trek Into Darkness”) was just another hacker with a dream. He preaches to his fellow travelers in the online underground that they need to be doing more important work, rather than engaging in electronic mischief and gaming.
He also tries to sell them on the notion that WikiLeaks is dedicated to throwing light on the darkness of government and corporate skullduggery. That’s why he’s releasing previously secret documents, photos and video on the Internet.
He persuades a wide-eyed computer geek, Daniel Dornscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl), to join him and – after exposing banking scandals in Iceland and corrupt elections in Kenya – the site begins to make its mark.
In 2010, when WikiLeaks releases footage of a 2007 Iraqi airstrike by U.S. forces and secret documents regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the world really begins to take notice. Assange becomes a global figure.
Through it all, Assange is portrayed as smart and idealistic but also cunning, demanding and cruel. As he begins to exert more control over Daniel, it’s easy to see the effect that being raised in an Australian cult called The Family had on Assange. (Apparently, according to the film, The Family required that children in the group dye their hair white, a practice Assange continues.)
The interplay between Assange and Dornscheit-Berg – beginning with admiration and ending in hostility – is fascinating. The film, written by Josh Singer, is partly based on Dornscheit-Berg’s book, “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website,” so it’s no surprise that Assange comes off the worst.
Also not portrayed in the best light is the mainstream media, specifically England’s The Guardian, whose journalists show nothing but contempt for Assange and his work.
Condon handles what is essentially a war of wills and words with a keen visual eye, making even a moment such as WikiLeaks being hacked and disabled into something cinematic.
All in all, it makes for a gripping account of recent history – no vampires required.