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Review: The Fifth Estate

It's rare I review a film...actually it's rare I actually make it to a film in the cinema, so 'The Fifth Estate' must have made an impression.

Several people walked out of this film last night. Not that I'm judging, but I don't think it was because of the controversial or potentially upsetting subject matter (they actually left long before the clip of the Afghanistan war footage was even shown) but because the film requires brain power. Now I'm not judging (well ok I'm judging) I'm not being holier than thou about not wanting a film that requires brain power (one glance at my DVD collection will tell you that) but it perhaps should have been obvious from the title/description this film would take a little work.

Though maybe they were there for the Cumberbatch and were disappointed. Because Cumberbatch is essentially gone in this film, replaced by an eerily accurate Assange (Assangebatch if you will) Now obviously as an actor it's expected to inhabit a role, but commendation must be made to Cumberbatch's transformation into Assange. As a long term fan, and one who has investigated his many older roles this isn't a surprise (see his portrayal of a young Stephen Hawking for example) but for those who know him as 'the bad guy from Star Trek' or 'that Sherlock bloke' I'd urge them to watch this to see what he can do. I'd also venture it's worth the admission price to see a scene where Assange dances in a nightclub. Anyone who has seen the film will understand why. Overall it is a complex performance of a complex and difficult man, and the greatest respect to what Cumberbatch manages in the role. Originally I wanted to leave my analysis of Cumberbatch's performance at that, not wanting to seem too sycophantic about his skills, however I think it's merited. His performance in this role shows that he really is one of the best actors of his generation and for that alone it's worth seeing. It’s the kind of performance you look at and just ask, how? How do you do that?

The supporting cast are also uniformly strong, Daniel Bruhl at the centre of the film as Daniel Domscheit-Berg holds his own against Cumberbatch's performance while Laura Linney's provides a centre of gravity to the 'enemy' of the film, the US government. Peter Capaldi as the editor of the Guardian gives a strong performance in a small role, while Dan Stevens at his side for much of the film does little but add to the scenery, perhaps not quite leaving Downton for then? Of the supporting roles however it is David Thewlis who gives the most outstanding of performances. A long term British actor of the 'oh it's him from that thing' variety (probably to my age group 'oh it's him from Harry Potter') this role really shows what he can do as an actor. Ultimately although he is at the centre of the film, it is not a biographical film about Assange. He is the centre of the piece certainly but it is a film about the period of time, and what Assange and his associates did rather than the man himself. The bias of the piece makes this so, the film derived from two books and from the point of view of  Domscheit-Berg there is an inevitable bias. 

What makes the film interesting, aside from these performances, is that it leaves it up to the viewer. Assange himself may not have liked the film, probably because Assange doesn’t come off as a clean cut hero, but neither is he demonised. The viewer is presented with what happened, albeit from Domschiet-Berg’s point of view, but the film doesn’t pass a judgement. Those already familiar with Wikileaks may have some of their existing opinion coloured, they may indeed have it changed but they’ll do that for themselves rather than because of anything the film tells them. We see some of the ‘other side’ in the American government but they, in a cast held together by Laura Linney, aren’t demonsised. If anything the centering on Linney’s character give the US government a human centre making the Wikileaks debacle more than the website versus the government. There is balance in the film and that makes it a stronger statement, and I’d be willing to bet actually swings things in Assange’s favour whether he appreciates that or not.

The important thing about this film, is that it opens up the Wikileaks debate for the audience. As a political person, as a historian I considered myself fairly well informed about the actions of Wikileaks, and fairly decided on where I placed them and myself against any moral compass. Still I found I learned things (which I then go away and think about and question which I think the film is asking us to do) and I also found myself questioning my stance as the film progressed. Ultimately I didn't change my mind about Wikileaks, but I felt as if I’d given it consideration in detail for the first time in a while, and that is the point of the film as, in an albeit heavy handed ended David Thewlis’ reporter hands the issue over to the audience as the ‘Fifth Estate’ to decide. My personal stance, in case anyone is interested? (and why should you be, go and watch the film, do some reading and decide for yourselves) but personally I think what Assange and Wikileaks did was morally right in spirit and questionable in execution. I applaud the desire to tell the world things that people needed to hear, I recognise that the execution lacked finesse and diplomacy. But then perhaps with finesse and diplomacy these things would not be achieved. This is the thing with Assange’s work, even having thought about it in detail prior to this film, there is no black and white answer and anyone who tries to give one is perhaps missing the point of the work, and the approach of the film. The debate should be had, it should go on and actually if we’re debating then we've achieved half of what Wikileaks sought to do, we've opened up the secrets and discussed them, even if in the process we’re debate the process of the secret telling.

It’s a film that should make you think, that should make your head ache if you think about it enough. It’s also a film that makes you think beyond these specific circumstances to the world we all operate in. And as a bonus, it contains some stellar performances. I urge people to see it if only to judge for themselves.  To be, indeed the fifth estate.  


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