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How to Render the Probable Unpalatable

Edward Still

The Fifth Estate
Bill Cordon
DreamWorks Pictures and Participant Media
UK Release: 11th October 2013


Taking a leaf from Bill Condon’s book on screen pizzazz, I begin my article stating the location where my viewing of his work took place, as he does for every occurrence in his narrative. If that hasn’t got you going, just imagine the text flying in from an angle flickering with technological glitter. Still nothing? Perhaps you’ve seen Hackers or The Matrix or Mission Impossible 4 and you’re feeling a little jaded.

Condon’s film The Fifth Estate, which covers the rise in importance and putative moral decline of WikiLeaks, is lacquered with a surface zip and panache that serves to lend a certain momentum to the events which are covered in the depiction. The problem with this glitz and its dynamism is that, in its unbending respect to filmic teleology, it persists as an irritating reminder of the film’s major failing: for most of those going to see The Fifth Estate, unless they are die-hard followers of Assangedalf the White or aficionados of the patriot act, the interest generated by the WikiLeaks saga stems from the debate generated around the figure of Assange and the actions of his organization. This debate is for the most part effaced from Condon’s narrative. In charging towards answers, the film seldom asks questions and thus we are presented with a singular perspective, one of which we were aware prior to viewing and one that, in the end, and perhaps against our better judgment, we feel compelled to reject.

To begin with the depiction of Assange himself, it would be churlish to deny the excellence of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance. He has all the neurotic tics and vocal peculiarities expertly managed and, as is so often the case, he draws the eye when others should hold focus. Yet under Bill Condon’s direction, Cumberbatch embodies a kind of super-bastard who, despite passing references to childhood traumas, (one of which is later undermined by a revelation regarding his hair-colour), is nearly always presented as singularly loathsome. He slithers over the screen, bumping into some invisible mortals, leering unctuously at others (the ones with breasts) and generally being a megalomaniacal arse of quite astonishing proportions. Leaving the possible accuracy of these details aside, the resulting effect is that Assange begins to occupy the space of the cartoon baddie, as Cumberbatch feared that he would upon reading the script. Given his importance as a modern figure, regardless of one’s feelings towards this antipodean antihero, this circumscription leads one to conclude either that the film has a political agenda, as is possible, or, more likely, that the filmmaker doesn’t trust his audience to engage with a more nuanced representation. Just as we must be constantly updated on where we are, what the importance of certain happenings are, and just how exciting these events should be considered to be (see pizzazz), we are never left to reflect on Assange’s character and are instead reminded at all times that he’s bloody horrible.

Furthermore, the characters who act as counterweights to Assange are all so lovely you just want to give them a hug and lead them away from the monster and his machinations: Daniel Berg (Daniel Brül) is the principled “nice-guy”, whom Assange, the film somewhat gratuitously reveals, estranges from his parents and girlfriend with unhealthy doses of snobbery and lechery: Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney) is the well-meaning American politician who just wants what’s best for world peace and harmony: Dr Tarek Haliseh (Alexander Siddig) is the US mole trying to escape from Benghazi with his idealized family still intact.

The effect of this polarization is that when the film arrives at its fulcrum—the release of sensitive documents relating to the war in Afghanistan and the decision of whether to do so in redacted or un-redacted form—all the nice people line up quite neatly on one side of the argument with Assange and a few clips of some crusty activists on the other. What’s really problematic about this shepherding is that in repressing a counter-narrative through filmic manipulation, The Fifth Estate engenders a will to topple its notional stance, despite its plausibility. Prior to seeing the fiction, the facts of the Wikileaks story and the reality of Assange’s demeanor and rhetoric had led me to believe essentially what the film wants us to: a troubled idealist with a powerful idea became corrupted by amour-propre with dangerous consequences. After seeing the fiction that would seemingly reinforce this standpoint, I was irritated by condescension and simplicity into yearning to reject this potentially reasonable appraisal. Considering the subtlety and indeterminacy of Condon’s previous works – Twilight: Breaking Dawn and Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh – I was doubly perturbed.

Edward Still is reading for a DPhil in Medieval and Modern Languages at St Catherine’s College, Oxford.