The political thriller has had a life of varying fortunes. In the ’70s, it enjoyed for a brief spell of privileged status at the box office, where Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor or Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men became two of that decade’s more successful major releases. In more recent times it has failed to keep its hold on the movie going public’s attention, as proved by the underperformance of the genre’s almost every major example (City Hall, Rendition etc.) in the last twenty years. Several explanations of this trend may be reasonably offered, but I wonder if the best isn’t the simple fact that the simple clarity of our more salable narrative types is a natural enemy of the political thriller, which belongs to a murky world of moral half-light. Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate is the most recent example of the problematic genre’s abiding interest and difficulties.
The makers of The Fifth Estate are not sure if they want us to be angry. This is an odd stance to take in a film whose protagonist, Julian Assange, is a man whose very name has become, in recent times, a synonym for idealistic indignation- an emotion strangely absent from this picture. This is all the more puzzling when we reflect that neither the script nor the performances are inarticulate, and director Bill Condon seems more than adequately aware that the political material with which he is dealing is the stuff humanitarian dreams are made of. Yet the conscience of the film is rounded with an atmosphere of sleepiness. In the early acts this hesitancy is not without its benefits, as Condon shows the good sense to refrain from erecting those soapboxes of self-righteousness which crop up all too frequently in films of this kind. Even if Orwell and Solzhenitsyn are quoted with inevitable reverence, Condon resists the temptation to make Assange into a martyred messiah for the digital age. He has sense enough to treat with forbearance and undeceived realism a man who has both a child’s healthy hatred of bullies and the impatient selfishness which so often attends the contempt of corrupted power.
Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his convert/colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl) fight a lonely battle: two righteous geeks and their laptops against a faceless succession of international banks, third-world despots and finally the U.S. State Department, wryly humanized by the likes of Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci. It is with the introduction of these latter antagonists that the story loses its way, as though its makers were not sure whether the failings of Assange as a man were not grounds enough for dismissing Wikileaks’ revelation of the 2007 murder of Iraqi journalists by the crew of an American Apache gunship. But if a murder has been done, and a witness has testified to it, does it matter if the witness is a selfish blowhard? Assange’s strained relationship with those around him, especially Domscheit-Berg, through whose eyes we view the film’s events, has the effect of alienating the director from the spirit of his mission. Condon apparently grows tired of his hero sometime around the ninety-minute mark, and by the time the gunship incident is introduced, Assange has grown so grating that even the most unimpeachable liberal humanist in the audience is ready to raise two cheers for arbitrary drone strikes.
The question of whether Assange as portrayed in The Fifth Estate has been deliberately misrepresented is not one which the viewer asks himself. The verdict with which we depart is that he is a confident iconoclast and unbearable, possibly even criminal narcissist for whose gatecrashing we should nonetheless be grateful. But an injustice has been done, in that we are not asked to give a damn. To admit that a summary judgment of Assange’s (yet unfinished?) legacy is a complex opinion to draft does not excuse the laziness which banishes him to the margins of his own story. Ultimately, The Fifth Estate is a rather sad testimony to the dangers of the inadequately attentive moral conscience. Assange deserves better.