Critics haven't been very kind to the Wikileaks/Julian Assange movie The Fifth Estate thus far. From a critique questioning the casting choice of Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange, to reviews deeming the movie muddled and dull, the painted picture is clear: this movie isn't good, doesn't depict the issue properly and has nothing to offer.
I'm not saying The Fifth Estate is a flawless film -- far from it. There's a pretty needless subplot involving Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci, and sometimes so much information is thrown at you that it's difficult to keep it all in order, especially if you're uninformed about the whole Wikileaks debacle.
As a member of the "new" media, along with my colleagues around the world, we have the privilege of being exposed to all information available; that is to say, when a news event breaks, we're usually privy to the details. We typically understand what's happening in its entirety. We take for granted that there's a gigantic population of people -- a large percentage, to be sure -- who either don't care about issues like Wikileaks, or don't have the first clue what's going on with it. I'm not saying that's wrong, per se, I'm just saying it's a fact: A lot of people are willfully ignorant, or just don't have the means to find out. (Frankly, I can't blame them -- the world is a depressing mess at the moment.)
So movies like The Fifth Estate might just be the only way some people get their information. It's served up and delivered in a palatable, more easily digestible way, sans talking heads bickering back and forth with jargon. I think a lot of us forget that movies serve that purpose in society: to disseminate information to the masses. Education isn't just for documentaries anymore.
Based on the book by Daniel Domscheit-Berg ("Inside Wikileaks: My Time With Julian Assange At The World's Most Dangerous Website"), The Fifth Estate follows Daniel (played by Daniel Brühl) as he meets, befriends and is outwardly seduced by Assange and his personal quest to make governmental and military information completely open to the public. At the outset of the movie, Assange is depicted as a hopeful visionary, and by the end, he's shown as a paranoid liar, willing to do anything for his "plan." Director Bill Condon ("Breaking Dawn," "Dreamgirls") and Cumberbatch do their absolute best to play neutral, portraying one of the most important cultural figures of the past year as either extreme, hoping to meet somewhere in the middle.
To an extent, the film succeeds. It's a perspective, not the perspective, and it doesn't really make a final judgement. We learn details about Assange's life -- like how he dyes his hair, yet claims it turned white on its own, and tales of possibly severe abuse in his past -- that most people wouldn't be aware of. I will be frank here: despite the fact that The Fifth Estate is written from Domscheit-Berg's point of view, the movie taught me several things about the Wikileaks ordeal that I didn't know anything about. It helped me understand it.
In the end, it's inconsequential how the film depicts Assange -- we're going to make our own minds up about him anyway. I didn't come out hating Assange, and I didn't come out liking him either. Instead, I came home and immediately researched him. I went to Wikileaks and looked through all of the documents and information. On one hand, I agreed with his quest for open information, and on the other, I fretted over innocent peoples' safety and right to privacy. It's a thorny issue, obviously, but it really comes down to the two sides. In no way does The Fifth Estate decide. It's sideless.
And if I, a member of the media, came home hungry to know more and understand all sides, how would the layperson react? At best, they'll do the same and educate themselves, and at worst, they'll come out thinking, "Man, that Cumberbatch guy is weird-looking," or "That was boring." Ultimately, they'll be armed with a bit more knowledge about that whole Wikileaks thing, and isn't that the point of Assange's actions, and of The Fifth Estate? Get that information out there.
So never mind the tone of the movie, never mind the reviews and never mind if the details about Assange are embellished or fabricated. What is Wikileaks and how is our modern world dealing with the increasing availability of sensitive information? How do you personally feel about it, and what do you want to do?
"The Fifth Estate" opens in theatres on October 18, and is playing at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival.