MovieBob - Intermission

Fifth Estate, Third Rail


“Everything is politics.”
-Thomas Mann

That famous quotation becomes especially true for film critics and entertainment journalists during the Fall “serious movie” season, just one more example of why this time of year can be so damn exhausting. Yes, that’s me asking for your pity. Pity me. Pity me hard.

Whereas the Summer/Fall divide in the Hollywood release schedule originally developed on the basis of age demographics (kids and teens are more prominent in Summer months, so bring on the explosions and superheroes); but it’s also become an incidental divide of the so-called Cultural War. As American society becomes less and less homogeneous, with no one niche able to truly call itself the omnipotent majority-voice, alongside the new normal of global audiences being just as if not more important to movie-industry economics a deliberate new paradigm has emerged: The “grownup” movies of Fall get to have points, messages, and specific political or philosophical perspectives; while the “teenage” movies of Summer try as best they can to be apolitical.

I think that’s one of the reasons that comic-book superheroes have become the new favorite hero type of the movies: In times such as these, where onetime go-to movie good guys (soldiers, cops, cowboys, etc) all seem to come with political baggage of one type or another, superheroes offer made-up men (and women) fighting (mostly) made-up evils for made up reasons. The Avengers protect New York, but from aliens and the Viking God of Mischief rather than Al Qaeda or North Korea. Even Captain America battles a sci-fi offshoot of Nazism, while speechifying universal “eat your vegetables, be nice to your elders” do-gooderisms that only sound “patriotic” by virtue of their speaker’s costume. Big-scale actioners that do come on strong for this or that agenda are often punished at the boxoffice, as seemed to be the case with White House Down.

But during the fall? It’s open-season on ideological axe-grinding. This is when we’ll get our environmentalist movies, our historical dramas about Civil Rights and slavery, our government conspiracy docudramas and biopics of controversial figures. All well and good, but also exhausting, since now me and mine must contend with the nagging charge of bias not only in our artistic perspective but in our philosophy; which I find especially irksome since I try not to have one. That’s not to say I don’t take sides or have opinions, just that they aren’t “unified” by some grand theory. Socialism, Capitalism, Objectivism, whatever. I don’t care what school of thought the fix to a problem comes from, just that it does fix the problem and get us past the next goalpost. Consistency, to my mind, is for cake batter (Mmmm, cake…) not for governing a society (or even a life.)

That might be why I have a certain amount of admiration (enjoyment wouldn’t be a correct descriptive) for the new “story of WikiLeaks” drama The Fifth Estate, which frames the rise to prominence of the infamous whistleblowing website and the dissolution of the friendship between founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and startup cohort Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl, aka Frederick Zoller from Inglorious Basterds.) as a kind of cautionary tale of what can happen when zealous commitment to a political/philosophical ideal collides with, well… the real world.

The film makes Assange its flashy centerpiece, aided by a gloriously hammy turn by Cumberbatch – all smarm, charm and furtive mood-swings while glowering from under those signature white locks – but it’s really less the story of him or his website than it is the story of Domscheit-Berg and a group of other ground-floor WikiLeaks operatives going through the kind of idealism-to-jaded-survivor character arc more often associated with movies about people getting into and out of religious cults. (The real Assange, as of this writing still holed-up in a London embassy avoiding sexual misconduct charges, has denounced the film as falsehood and propaganda, charges Cumberbatch cheekily recites at the film’s climax.)

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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.

About the author

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.