fifth estate movie poster

At first wowed by Assange and WikiLeaks' open-information idealism (the original goal: A secure website for would-be whistleblowers to upload any confidential government/corporate secrets they wanted), they gradually find themselves grappling with their self-appointed leader's egomaniacal zealotry and a seemingly hypocritical lack of concern for his own collateral damage. Things come to a head during the site's big 2010 moment in the sun (the info-dump release of thousands of classified U.S. Military documents), as they and their then-collaborators at The Guardian are horrified to learn that Assange, who is ideologically opposed to editing any document posted to WikiLeaks, plans to renege on his promise to redact the names of U.S. agents and informants named in the documents - potentially putting their lives at immediate risk. For me, this feels symbolic of not only Assange himself but of the all-too-frequent falls from grace that plagues the "hacktivist" community, the perhaps inevitable result of well-meaning folks becoming detached from reality and consequence by the digital-unreality of the space they choose to occupy.

The film takes pains to play "fair" about all this, personalizing Assange's antipathy toward cover-ups via the infamous WikiLeak'd video of soldiers firing on Reuters employees in Iraq while also putting a human face on the docu-dump's fallout, with Laura Linney as a State Department worker frantically scrambling to get her good friend, an informant in the Libyan government, to safety when his identity is compromised. But it also keeps its own perspective unmistakably clear; praising the ideals behind WikiLeaks while damning its figurehead as an icy, intemperate megalomaniac. It's unlikely that this will satiate either ardent Assange defenders (likely to agree with the supposition of the film as part of a coordinated character-assault) or WikiLeaks detractors, but an effort is made and it is, after all, a Fall Movie.

That said, I find myself admiring its ambitions without being fully able to call it a great film. It's obvious reference-point is The Social Network, and it's intriguing that it somehow manages to wring slightly less cyber-drama from the world of keystrokes and laptops than its predecessor when this one actually is concerned with matters of life and death. At times it's a bit too simplistic, as well: While Bruhl is fine as Domscheit-Berg, the character edges up to being a kind of cipher; it's hard to conceive that someone this smart took so long to realize that Assange wasn't the benevolent hero he played at. And it feels like something of an oversight that the film can barely be bothered to pay lip-service to WikiLeaks' (and The Guardian's, for that matter) apparent inability to protect Chelsea Manning as a source.

These are the perils, though, of trying to make movies out of historical events still unfolding. The Fifth Estate suffers from being forced to end in what still feels like the middle of its own story, a fate similar to that which befell Oliver Stone's well-intentioned misfire W a few years back. But taken on its own terms, as a piece of glossy studio infotainment, it's a frequently diverting experience while falling short of importance or classic-hood. Would that all "serious" dramas of the season be so tolerable...

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. He also wrote a book.

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