In 1949, the great English novelist JB Priestley, because of his politics, was blacklisted by George Orwell from contributing to a government organ, a piece of trivia that sprang to mind when WikiLeaks was irreverently referred to as ‘Big Brother’ in this over-long but even-handed account of the Julian Assange soap opera.
If nothing else, the ostracism of Priestley supports the idea that those who would change the world inevitably wish to recreate it in their own image. But keyboard warriors need a hero as much as any low-brow footy tragic and Assange, played here in The Fifth Estate with irksome arrogance and growing paranoia (and an excellent Australian accent) by Benedict Cumberbatch, fits the bill for a certain type of privileged radical.
It begins with Assange and his German associate Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) on the eve of their sensational online exposure of the thousands of secret US military documents forwarded to them by the now jailed whistleblower, Pvt Bradley Manning, then flashes back three years to cover the rollercoaster ride of WikiLeaks’ growing notoriety.
By treating them as though unrelated, director Bill Condon tends to make a dog’s breakfast of the movie’s three significant themes. The relationship between Assange and Domscheit-Berg closely resembles the exploitative one that pulled Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin apart in The Social Network – Brühl, after coping with the overbearing James Hunt in Rush, is a natural for the part, and the more sympathetic of the two men.
The looming shift in media influence, from newspapers and traditional journalism to the internet, is clearly understood by The Guardian’s Alan Rushbridger (Peter Capaldi), who is desperate to form a publishing alliance with what he sees as an information source that might make hard-copy obsolete.
But the most serious issue, of just how much ‘knowledge’ should be freely accessible before others’ lives are put at risk and the cosy freedom with which we lounge in front of our laptops is threatened, is evaded.
That Assange is afforded a preachy coda, speaking to camera, stuck in my craw.
~ John Campbell