Saturday, September 7, 2013

TIFF 2013: The Fifth Estate

The Fifth Estate (USA/United Kingdom/Belgium) directed by Bill Condon, 124 minutes, Winter Garden Theatre, 12.30p

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a complex, often unlikeable, highly intelligent but troubled visionary. This reckons pretty much with the media image of Assange who comes off as creepily brilliant (at least to my point of view). The film is based on a book written by his most important (and initially only) lieutenant Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl).

Domscheit-Berg's memoir, Inside WikiLeaks, details the formative feats of the organization's "information activism". Domscheit-Berg initially sees the Australian Assange as a brilliant visionary fighting for social justice and truth against large, soul-crushing corporations (the Swiss private bank Julius Baer), evil religious cults (the Church of Scientology) and fascist political parties (British National Party). 

Eventually Domscheit-Berg forms a more balanced picture of the illustrious leader. When WikiLeaks publishes un-redacted documents numbering nearly 750,000 United States military logs and diplomatic cables, Domscheit-Berg has concerns for the numerous military personnel, diplomats and U.S. sources whose lives might be endangered. Assange believes he is acting in the wider good. 

Cumberbatch - an intriguing chameleon I last saw in Parade's End, very different fare - is impressive as Assange: arrogant, highly intelligent, vain, tyrannical, and, exploitative of his personal relationships. But the screenplay written by Josh Singer reveals a more nuanced picture of Assange as a boy - allegedly raised in a cult where he was forced to dye his hair white (something Assange continues to do to this day much to Daniel's surprise) and participate in bizarre rituals. A boy who did not know his father and lived a nomadic existence now a man who is himself a father to an young, adult son he rarely sees. 

The peripheral roles in the film are very small - Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie - as members of the diplomatic core and U.S. government - and the focus is primarily on the relationship between the two men. The sexual assault charges in Sweden are alluded to only briefly in a post-script at the very end as is his exile in the Equadorian embassy in London where he currently resides.

The cinematic portrait put me in mind of Flaubert's edict: "We should not touch our idols; their gilding will remain on our hands."

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