‘The Fifth Estate’ whitewashes WikiLeaks’ nuance digging for a vanilla villain

The Fifth Estate 21
'The Fifth Estate' explores the world-altering tale of WikiLeaks and its conflicted founders.

Any biopic crafted around recent events – and still-living characters – inherently shows some bias. While older subjects benefit from decades of research that have distilled down the commonly accepted truth of how they unfolded, filmmakers portraying modern subjects don’t have that luxury. They’re forced to reconcile varying accounts of an event, and lacking the perspective provided by time, often veer toward templates of modern storytelling to fill in the cracks. And modern storytelling – in the movies anyway – often veers toward oversimplification.

That is exactly what happens in The Fifth Estate, directed by Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 and 2). Faced with the complex evolution of media in the website WikiLeaks and a morally opaque central character in its founder, Julian Assange, Condon fails to do either real justice.

The Fifth Estate reduces this fascinating conflict of personalities to disappointing clichés.

The film follows Assange (played by Sherlock and Star Trek: Into Darkness’ Benedict Cumberbatch) and Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by rising German actor Daniel Brühl, from Inglorious Basterds and recently Ron Howard’s Rush), as they build WikiLeaks and deal with its world-changing consequences.

Thanks to the site’s anonymous submission process, WikiLeaks has been responsible for several significant information leaks that led to – among other things – the arrest of corrupt bank officials, war crimes being brought to light, and government secrets revealed. It all culminated with the release of tens of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables that showed the war in Afghanistan in a new light, and nearly sparked an international incident that critics to this day claim cost lives, although that remains debatable.

The “Fifth Estate” of the title signifies how WikiLeaks represents the next step beyond the “fourth estate” of journalism. It’s a juicy idea, one that suggests how technology could overturn established forms of media and subvert the governments that grip them tightly. Alas, as the movie progresses, it stops trying to grapple with such thorny issues and focuses instead on an element of the story that can bring it to a more tidy conclusion: the vilifying of Assange. Whether you see the real-life Assange as a hero or villain, the film makes its judgment abundantly clear, and becomes weaker for it.

The Fifth Estate 20
Despite the film’s gross oversimplifications, Benedict Cumberbatch does a commendable job portraying WikiLeaks maestro Julian Assange.

The movie is based on a book written by Berg, which ensures a biased portrayal as it shifts from telling the story of the website’s disruptive introduction on the world stage to the growing conflict between Berg and Assange. The two have increasingly divergent feelings on WikiLeak’s responsibility to carefully vet documents before releasing them. Berg argues that names should be redacted and individuals who worked as informants for governments like the U.S. should be shown some consideration of protection before WikiLeaks published certain documents. Assange, for his part, felt editing of any kind showed bias, and was anyway more concerned with getting documents published before the U.S. could find a way to shut them down. 

Having abandoned the even larger ideas of what WikiLeaks meant for media as a whole, The Fifth Estate proceeds to reduce this fascinating conflict of personalities and priorities to disappointing clichés, with Berg as the good guy and Assange the bad. 

The film focuses more on Berg than Assange, but neither is as interesting as the project they’re working on together

Of course, we’ve seen this problem before in a biopic. David Fincher’s The Social Network was based largely on the story of Eduardo Saverin, Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook co-founder, who felt wronged by his former friend and told a slanted story that painted Zuckerberg as the clear villain. But Fincher turns the flaw into a strength by making a movie that focuses relentlessly on that villain, who is the most interesting part of the story. Condon does the opposite, choosing to focus more on Berg than Assange, when the latter is clearly the more interesting of the two and neither are as interesting as the project that they’re working on together. 

In spite of Berg’s central role, it’s Cumberbatch’s performance that is more likely to generate Oscar buzz. He is portrayed as a messianic visionary; an abrasive, larger-than-life personality who lives in paranoia that is sometimes justified, sometimes not. In the characters’ own words, he is borderline autistic, and Cumberbatch rides a breathtaking line between being transparent in Assange’s ideals, while making the murky feelings and motivations simmering beneath his surface simultaneously visible. 

By contrast, Brühl’s Berg is fairly dull. The actor does a good job with what he is given, but the character is just not strong enough to carry the story of the “world’s most dangerous website,” as the real Berg named it in his book.

A subplot that arises late in the film shows the U.S. government’s reaction to the rise of WikiLeaks and the release of the cables. Laura Linney plays Sarah Shaw, a high-ranking member of the State Department that serves as the face of balance. She is – among other duties – responsible for an informant within the Libyan government who is forced to take his family and flee when the cables are released. Although the performances by Linney, Stanley Tucci as her boss, and Anthony Mackie as a White-House rep are strong, and momentarily threaten to fulfill The Fifth Estate‘s initial promise of a film that tells the story of a ground-shaking moment in recent history, it’s all ultimately just a subplot that feels tacked on. 


The Fifth Estate has moments of excellence that are hurt by a few fundamental storytelling decisions. The film doesn’t trust the audience with the real story; playing up a more familiar one instead. One guy is crazy and reckless; the other is noble and revolutionary. It’s the least interesting take on this material, and I, for one, was left hoping someone makes a movie about WikiLeaks. 

(Images and video courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures)

Movies & TV

After Avengers: Endgame, what’s next for the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Here's what we know so far about the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Avengers: Endgame, from rumors and speculation about Phase 4 of the MCU to confirmed facts, films, and television shows.
Movies & TV

The best movies on Netflix in March, from Buster Scruggs to Roma

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, witty humor, or anything else.
Movies & TV

The best movies on Amazon Prime Video right now (April 2019)

Amazon Prime Video provides subscribers with access to a host of fantastic films, but sorting through the catalog can be a major undertaking. Luckily, we've done the work for you. Here are the best movies on Amazon Prime Video right now.
Movies & TV

'Prime'-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

There's more to Amazon Prime than free two-day shipping, including access to a number of phenomenal shows at no extra cost. To make the sifting easier, here are our favorite shows currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Movies & TV

Final X-Men: Dark Phoenix trailer sends Marvel’s mutants into space

20th Century Fox has released a new trailer for X-Men: Dark Phoenix, which puts the spotlight on Game of Thrones actress Sophie Turner as the powerful, telepathic mutant Jean Grey.
Movies & TV

The best Black Mirror episodes are disturbing, mesmerizing, and provocative

After watching all 19 episodes across four seasons and one movie, we selected and ranked the best Black Mirror episodes released so far. Read on to find out if your favorite episode from the award-winning Netflix series made the list.
Movies & TV

The Game of Thrones season premiere was pirated 54 million times in 24 hours

Winter is here, and so are the pirates. The debut episode of Game of Thrones' final season was pirated 54 million times in the 24 hours after it aired, almost tripling the show's official viewership totals.
Movies & TV

From comedies to biopics, these are the best movies about music and musicians

The best movies about music range from hilarious comedies to powerful and informative biopics that illuminate the world of sonic expression from all possible angles. Here are our current favorites.
Home Theater

Here's how to turn off subtitles on Netflix, no matter the device

Subtitles are great if you want or need them, but they can be a major headache if you’ve somehow turned them on by accident and can’t figure out how to get rid of them. Don't worry, it's not as complicated as it seems.
Movies & TV

New trailer for Hobbs & Shaw introduces Idris Elba’s Black Superman

A new trailer for Fast & Furious franchise spinoff Hobbs & Shaw has arrived and it ups the ante with even more crazy action featuring stars Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, as well as new addition Idris Elba.
Movies & TV

Marvel releases more footage from Avengers: Endgame in latest TV ad

The events of Avengers: Infinity War changed the Marvel Cinematic Universe in some big ways and left fans wondering how its heroes can possibly recover. Here's everything we know about Avengers: Endgame, the sequel to Infinity War.
Home Theater

From the Roku Ultra to the Fire TV Cube, these are the best streaming devices

There are more options for media streamers than ever, so it’s difficult to pick the best option. But that’s why we're here. Our curated list of the best streaming devices will get you online in no time.

Avengers aftermath: From The Eternals to The Boys, things are about to get weird

On this week's show, we'll take a deep dive into what's coming after Avengers: Endgame. Sure, it's probably going to be the biggest movie ever, but what about Marvel/Disney's Phase 4? We'll tell you why The Eternals may be a big part of it.
Movies & TV

Clip from John Wick: Chapter 3 confirms the dog is totally fine

John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum, the third installment of the wildly successful action series that stars Keanu Reeves as a deadly assassin forced out of retirement, hits theaters in May 2019. Here's everything we know about it so far.