The Fifth Estate Review

poster from the Walt Disney Pictures film The Fifth Estate

I was looking forward to this movie. Not because of Wiki Leaks, though. I only vaguely remember it from when it was in the news years ago. It wasn’t really the friendship story, either. I mean, I enjoyed The Social Network, which had a similar dynamic, but that wasn’t enough to tempt me away from 12 Years a Slave. So: confession time. The reason I chose The Fifth Estate was to see Rush‘s Daniel Bruhl in action again.

A German computer programmer gets drawn into a friend’s plan to solicit and release confidential documents in the name of public transparency.

Luckily, The Fifth Estate is a story about people (Julian Assange and Daniel Berg) more than a story about a thing (Wiki Leaks). The script kind of winds the characters up and lets them go, and the result is almost as wrenching as Anakin and Obi-Wan fighting in a river of lava. I loved it.

We begin with the meeting of Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) and Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) at a computer convention in Germany. Julian’s already off and running with Wiki Leaks, publishing documents that prove elections in Africa are a sham. He’s on the ball with that stuff, but when it comes to dealing with people, he’s hopeless. Daniel volunteers to help, and they become the Sheldon and Leonard of internet-based social justice.

Julian Assange and Daniel Berg from the Walt Disney Pictures film The Fifth Estate


Except where Sheldon is relatively harmless, Julian is not. He has trust issues, is a pathological liar, and seems to have no problem throwing people under the bus, because he believes “people are only loyal until it seems opportune not to be.” This is not Julian’s story, however (much as the ads want you to think it is). This is very much Daniel’s movie, as it’s based on the book he wrote. I can’t claim to know how accurate it is, and clearly it’s only one side of the story, but I don’t care. All I care about is how it works as a movie.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange from the Walt Disney Pictures film The Fifth Estate

For the record, though, if I was the real Julian, I would totally hate
this movie for making me seem like an a**hole.

Despite Julian’s obvious interpersonal issues and the frankly alarming number of lies that he tells, Daniel believes in what they’re doing. In a world where declining newspaper revenues force major news organizations to practice what Nick Davies (David Thewlis) calls ‘churnalism’ it’s up to the internet to the real investigative reporting. In short order Daniel and Julian manage to expose corruption at major banks despite lawyers trying to shut them down.

Guardian reporters from the Walt Disney Pictures film The Fifth Estate

Churnalism: ‘real’ newspaper reporters circling like sharks waiting
for internet reporters to throw chum in the water.

Since most of Daniel and Julian’s work involves accepting anonymous document submissions from the public, fact checking them, and publishing them online, there’s a lot of computer use in the movie. In fact, there’s more than one scene of Daniel and Julian sitting at the same table chatting online to each other instead of talking to each other face to face.

Daniel and Julian chat online from the Walt Disney Pictures film The Fifth Estate

Hey, how fast are you at typing? Cause I kinda feel like we could do this faster by talking.

Director Bill Condon tried to make these scenes interesting by having them interact in an imaginary office and by printing digital words all over everything. I found it really distracting, especially at first. I have no idea what they were saying to each other in that first chat because my brain was freaking out trying to process all the crap that was splattered all over the screen. I am the world’s worst multi-tasker, however, so maybe it won’t bother you as much.

Julian Assange from the Walt Disney Pictures film The Fifth Estate

I hope you don’t expect me to be able to read that, Bill Condon.

The story jumps around a lot, glazing over a lot of their victories because the important thread is the relationship between Daniel and Julian, which means the actors really need to sell their characters to us. And they do. Benedict Cumberbatch does an extremely believable Asperger syndrome and Daniel Bruhl is suddenly as earnest and nerdy as he was douchy and confident while playing Niki Lauda. For the second time in a month, I’m compelled to write a review that sounds like a freaking love letter to Daniel Bruhl (Benedict Cumber-who?) Are you happy, movie?!

Daniel Bruhl as Daniel Berg from the Walt Disney Pictures film The Fifth Estate

Help, I’m being stalked! Hide me!

Anyway, if Julian Assange really does act like his movie counterpart… holy crap. Julian is an idealist/steamroller and effectively sucks Daniel down the rabbit hole of his crazy until Daniel’s girlfriend Anke Domscheit (Alicia Vikander) points out that Julian needs Daniel’s groundedness. Daniel begins to push harder to make sure the things they publish are a) read and b) fact checked, which puts him at odds with Julian, especially when a massive pile of Afghan War documents and US political cables comes their way.

Wiki Leakers wait for the hammer to fall from the Walt Disney Pictures film The Fifth Estate

So… I hope no one has any plans for the next 80 years or so.

The documents are so secret and so potentially damaging that government (as represented by Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, and Anthony Mackie) are scrambling to pull agents and informants out of the field before their covers are blown and they and their families end up either being killed or tortured in Lybian prisons. In the interests of not making the script 1,000 pages long, this huge collection of informants is represented by a single character named Tarek (Alexander Siddig).

Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci from the Walt Disney Pictures film The Fifth Estate

So, on a scale from 1 to Fired, how screwed are we?

The weight of the American government smear campaign hangs over their heads like a hammer, so Daniel convinces Julian to work with reporters from the Guardian (England), Der Spiegel (Germany), and the New York Times (USA) so they have the army they need to go through all the documents. The newspapers want to redact people’s names from the documents but Julian claims editing is censorship, not realizing that he’s breaking one of his own stated aims: privacy for the individual.

Julian not working with a Guardian reporter from the Walt Disney Pictures film The Fifth Estate

Julian, you’re redacting the documents, right? Julian…?

The resulting battle is tense as hell, and I won’t tell you how it ends even though you probably already know, given that it was all over the news AND in a book. I will tell you that the movie worked its movie magic on me and I came away wanting two things: 1) to read Daniel Berg’s book and 2) to watch more Daniel Bruhl movies. Or three things I guess – the last one is to tell you to go see it.

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