Spoiler alert: WikiLeaks film The Fifth Estate

WikiLeaks film The Fifth Estate opens in American theaters October 18. In it, Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a megalomaniacal take on Julian Assange in a drama that mars its cultural accuracy with its cartoonish storytelling.
Written by Violet Blue, Contributor

The Fifth Estate: USA release October 18 2013, Drama, directed by Bill Condon, screenplay by Josh Singer

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Laura Linney, Peter Capaldi

Summary: Drama about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, based on the book Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website by Daniel Domscheit-Berg (known as "the man who sold out WikiLeaks") and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War On Secrecy, by WikiLeaks detractors David Leigh and Luke Harding.



What happens when you pair the director of Dreamgirls with a FOX TV writer cutting his teeth on his first film screenplay - and you hand them one of the most important stories in the history of journalism, produced under Disney's auspices?

We get The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (aka Hacker Sherlock).

It also stars some other people who really did the best they could with characters so made-for-TV stunted in their development they make Joss Whedon's burnt toast look like a more compelling supporting cast.

Hollywood's upcoming WikiLeaks film begins at the time Hacker Sherlock recruits Daniel Domscheit-Berg (aka Hacker Watson) who becomes, according to the film, a gullible little fact-checking Igor.


We meet the film's primary character (Hacker Watson) in his office, and see him play a computer prank on his boss (those wacky hackers!) and thus with his sideline interest of online activism, meets the film's other primary character, Hacker Sherlock.

Through the course of a filmic timeline punctuated with fantasy dream sequences that repeat on-screen action in cartoonishly broad stokes, Hacker Sherlock and Hacker Watson work with the Guardian UK to coordinate the release of hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables and war reports.

Actually, the film opens with a really entertaining visual trip through a history of media communication. This is definitely the best part. It's laughably ambitious, pretty much starting with cave paintings and ending with the last issue of Newsweek as seen on an iPad, but if you're a media, tech and writing geek like me you'll enjoy the trip.

The trip ends by leaving us in a dream sequence-y office with infinity walls, lined with neat rows of computers atop desks.

Or maybe it's a vision sequence. Is it a flashback? Are we lost? Did we take a wrong turn at The Social Network?

We will return to this tediously un-subtle screenwriting shortcut repeatedly throughout the film. Like when the director needs to show characters typing, or when we as an audience need to get beaten over the head with a plot development that we just saw happen between characters in the film's real world.

Hey - I'll give The Fifth Estate props for not making the hacking scenes into montages of "flying" through computers.

Hacker Sherlock and Hacker Watson flirt with both bromance and complex character development for a minute. The film quickly ditches the hard work of any relationship with the audience for a cinematic chain of events that firmly establish Hacker Sherlock as an aspie dick, and Hacker Watson as the person we should really care about.

Except we don't, though we would if the filmmakers could actually give us a reason outside of his victimhood, and his totally depth-free relationship. The film isn't interested in it, so why are we?

As the film's spool of stereotypes unrolls - of which women are the worst targets - The Fifth Estate manages to completely boggle the brain by including so many real-life details about European hacking culture that for someone as familiar with the culture as I've become, it almost gets a little creepy.

But if you're a hacker reading this and reflexively tensing up about the prospect of another round of Hollywood's insulting cultural appropriation, you needn't fret.

The film doesn't actually care enough about hacker culture to actually explain anything about it. Like everything else, especially the female characters, the film's hacker culture hallmarks only exist to support the film's clumsy screenwriting shortcuts.

If you've been to CCC (Chaos Communication Congress), where this film takes place in fits and starts, you'll instantly recognize that everyone is drinking Mate nonstop in the film just as we do in real life - yet never at any point tells the audience what the hell it is the characters are drinking.

We see Electronic Frontier Foundation and Noisebridge stickers (I attended the screening with around 50 EFF people, there was a happy cheer on first sight of an EFF sticker).

We see Club Mate in bottles and cases - and the tainted love that hackers have for the stuff. We see the yearly CCC hacker conference as it was in Berlin (it now takes place in Hamburg), with enough attention to detail that I can say, yes, that's surprisingly close to what spaces in the conference can be like.

We get an overt mention of a talk about TV-B-Gone, a device that shuts off TV's from a distance and really exists. We even get a Hollywood unicorn: laptop environments that look plausible.

Like everything else in the film, nothing is named or explained - and so we don't know why we should care.

The EFF, though also mentioned later in the film, is never called by its full name so we don't have a clue as to why this is important enough for Hacker Sherlock to talk about. Until late in the film when Club Mate is called an "energy drink" the audience will think the characters are chugging and gleefully trading cases of beer.

The CCC conference might be a big, ongoing community hackerspace - we're really not sure. I'm sure TV-B-Gone maker Mitch Altman's name was on the tip of Hacker Watson's tongue when he tried to get Hacker Sherlock to go see the TV-B-Gone talk... but was silenced by the film's need for us to see Hacker Sherlock say that hackers are a bunch of losers wasting their lives and segue into the film's trudging rinse-repeat of Hacker Watson's emotional manipulation as Hacker Sherlock spills some personal pain whilst selling the Wikileaks cause to Watson.

And that's about as deep as it gets. Phew!

The director and screenwriter proceed to heap on the examples of Hacker Sherlock as a rude man who hurts people, and Hacker Watson as an innocent chump. All other characters are sadly unimportant, and while these characters supply essential plot development amidst the churning of Wikileaks' actual timeline, they never become important enough to have real introductions, or an explanation of who they are.

When you see the film, you'll remember:

Nagging Girlfriend, State Department Bitch, State Department Guy Who Keeps State Department Bitch On Task, Whiny CCC Hippie, Slutty Wired Reporter, Visionary Guardian Editor, Dickhead Guardian Editor Who Was Right About Sherlock All Along, and The Wikileaks Scooby Gang (Which Materialized From Nowhere After We're Dramatically Shown Twice* That Sherlock Is A Lone Gunman Who Lied All Along About Working With A Team).

But will you remember their names?

Me neither.

Maybe you want to go see this film. If you saw The Social Network and want to see it again, but different, then definitely slot in The Fifth Estate.

Though if you have any actual interest to see Fifth Estate, you should. The film isn't unwatchable, and in point of fact it's pretty interesting, especially if you're like me and walked into the film as a relative outsider to the WikiLeaks story arc.

If this is you too, then I would also recommend walking into the film with a healthy amount of doubt as to what actually happened and who these people really are when the credits roll. 


Having grown up in a city Hollywood likes to use as its backyard, and having done film reviewing for several years, I'm instinctively mistrustful of the Hollywood Machine. It's prone to irresponsibility in its pursuit of the theatre-goer's dollar; at this time in history it primarily caters to the easy money found in remakes and sequels (the low-hanging fruit of moviegoers who will go see anything with "-man" or "#6" in the title).

One of the hallmarks I look for in both good, original storytelling and storyline accuracy is when I ask the age-old writers' question of any film I see: is it showing, or is it telling?

The Fifth Estate definitely shows us a lot... of pseudo-dream sequences. It is through these, and every scene related to character development, the film tells us what to think - while at the same time overtly telling you the viewer to, like, think for yourself.

Well, at least that's how the film decided to finally conclude itself: a 'think for yourself' message. This was only after three acts of Fifth Estate's struggle to figure out what it was saying at all, other than repeating that Julian Assange didn't care about anyone but himself.

And this is a shame. Because the issues underlying The Fifth Estate are ones we should care about very deeply, if not in part because the issues exist because we are in grave danger of losing touch with the reasons we should care about other people.

It's a laughably simplistic film about a complex topic.

Now I'll conclude with a spoiler.

Well, it isn't really a spoiler because you know how the WikiLeaks story ends. It hasn't - and to me, that's really interesting, but it can just go in the rubbish bin with all the other things that are really interesting about Wikileaks but didn't fit into a two-hour long episode of Lie To Me.

The film ends by deciding it Has A Message.

And that message is... Power to the people! Somehow!

After that, fade to black. But then - we fade back in. Wait! The film has one more message.

It's Hacker Sherlock, talking to the camera. To us.

He is telling us what the filmmakers have been telling us to think that WikiLeaks is about all along.

He looks directly at the audience and says that WikiLeaks is about... Hacker Sherlock.

Of course.

* We see Sherlock trickily (just like a hacker!) reveal to Watson he has been communicating with press using pseudonyms. Then we get a trip back to Fantasy Sequence Office, where we're treated with surprisingly non-comedic cuts of Hacker Sherlock laughing maniacally wearing different outfits to repeat, in case we didn't get it, that Hacker Sherlock WAS USING PSEUDONYMS.

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