Is there nothing Benedict Cumberbatch cannot do? Since the British actor caught the mainstream public’s eye with his modern-day reimagining of Sherlock Holmes, the son of acting parents has taken on the broadest range of roles imaginable.
In 2013 alone we’ve seen Cumberbatch celebrated as everything from an iconic Star Trek villain to a 19th century slave owner. He’ll wrap up the year playing both the dragon and the necromancer in The Hobbit:The Desolation of Smaug – but only after the public has seen him as one of this century’s most reviled and praised figures, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. But will acting talent alone be enough to answer the questions at the heart of The Fifth Estate?
This Bill Condon directed production attempts to bring into the mainstream an Internet marvel that has already given rise to some of the most dramatic news stories of the past five years. In 2006 Assange, an Australian-born hacker and activist established the whistle-blower web site Wikileaks. Employees of some of the most secretive organizations on the planet were free for the first time to publish evidence of criminal activities and human rights abuses with complete anonymity. But The Fifth Estate isn’t likely to satisfy the well-informed or those only just becoming aware of the phenomenon.
The opening titles provide a potted history of human communication, landing in 2010 where The Guardian newspaper is struggling to digest the reams of information Julian Assange has released regarding US military atrocities. While editor Stanley Tucci strides up and down trying to decide whether or not to publish, we switch to the back-story that led to this day. The film refocuses on the relationship between Assange and his right-hand man Daniel Domscheit-Berg, an idealistic IT specialist portrayed by Daniel Brühl. Together they set out to change the world but before long their partnership begins to break up over Assange’s ego and the questions rising in Berg’s mind.
Condon manages to keep the pace going, conveying the reach of the Internet with graphics that display the rippling effect of information. He even takes a stab at making chat room conversations look interesting with the old high-beam ‘words across the face’ trick. There’s also lots of racing around, tense meetings between US analysts, and the earnest looks from reporters you’d expect from a journalistic thriller. But nothing can stop the hollowness at the heart of the film from emerging.
The question of whether or not it’s good or even safe to permit the complete free flow of information clearly drives the plot. But the director promised his critics this was never going to be a documentary or an attempt to pass judgment on any party involved, and he’s been true to his word. Consequently we come no closer to really understanding Assange, his targets’ guilt or an answer to the question: does information need to be set free?
During The Fifth Estate Cumberbatch as Assange makes a number of impassioned speeches about the essential link between truth and freedom, including:
“If we could find one moral man, one whistle-blower, someone willing to expose those secrets, that man can topple the most powerful and most repressive of regimes.”
Assange is not the first to suggest the power of truth to break chains. It was Jesus who advised Pilate that if he knew and accepted the truth, then the truth would set him free. Jesus, of course, was talking about the truth of his identity as the Son of God, a fact that continues to liberate people from fear, ego and the expectations of society. Truth is indeed powerful but its context determines whether or not it heals or destroys. The Bible suggests that even the best intended and accurate words delivered without love – the desire to bless someone – actually do more harm than good:
“If anyone loudly blesses their neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse.”
What’s actually required is a mouth controlled by God’s wisdom. Benedict Cumberbatch might pick up a BAFTA for his nuanced portrayal of a man obsessed with spreading the truth, but we’re unlikely to come away from The Fifth Estate knowing where love would draw the line.
RELEASE DATE: November 14, 2013