You can’t expose the world’s secrets without exposing your own.
That’s the tagline for the new film The Fifth Estate. Directed by Bill Condon, this is the story of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks — especially Assange, up close and personal, warts and all.
Expectations for the film were high, especially with star Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange, and packaged as a fast-paced global thriller that traces the relationship between Assange and his early collaborator, Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl).
But the film crashed and burned. It opened in a whopping 1769 theaters across the USA a few days ago, but earned only $1.7 million over the weekend — a truly awful number. This was the worst box office debut for any film opening in at least 1500 theaters this year. What went wrong?
Didion of the Feminéma blog and I sat down to try to figure it out.
JMM: I hate to tell you this, but I was one of just two people who saw this movie at the 10:45 AM showing today. How many people were in attendance at the screening you attended?
Didion: There were four of us at the 1:40 showing, but hey — it’s a Monday! it’s mid-afternoon! I’m not sure the weak audience numbers necessarily reflect anything. And the two guys next to me loved the film.
I’m still processing, to be honest. JMM, do you think this film was written for a broad audience, or for people with particular views of WikiLeaks?
JMM: Great question. The film looked like it was marketed as a thriller. Proponents of transparency in government and media would be the standard bearers. But it played out much differently. I failed to detect any thrills, and I failed to learn anything about the process. What I came away with was that WikiLeaks (the organization) was a good idea, but that Assange himself turned it into being more about himself, than what he was trying to accomplish.
Which leads to the question (for which I have no answer) was the film fair to Assange?
Didion: It’s hard for me to answer that because I keep asking, would this film look any different if Assange had made it? Isn’t it very much to his advantage to be at its center, the way he is here? Isn’t it to his advantage to be portrayed as a complicated figure? Perhaps Assange would have portrayed himself as more heroic than he appears here, but I think he’s enough of a publicity savant to know that an ambivalent character is more interesting than a purely heroic one. (The one thing about the film that’d be different is the absence of the Daniel character, as the two men have had a devastating fallout.)
So in that regard, the film is more than fair; it lets Assange be the main character. Moreover, it wants us to believe that WikiLeaks truly is a fifth estate, a new guerrilla means of exposing the truth behind our institutions — also very much Assange’s message.
JMM: Well that certainly fits. A guerrilla means of bringing the truth out into the light. However it is also true that his methodology could be called something like Egotistical Anarchy. Or we might call him an Informational Insurgent. Maybe that’s the problem with the film – people would prefer to have learned more about the process and less about the guy behind the curtain.
Which leads me to another point. I really didn’t care for the first hour – at least once the opening montage concluded, we had no place to go but down. Did you see the film as two distinct and separate halves?
Didion: Hm. I’m not sure I can answer that. You’re right that it presents a gradually more problematic view of Assange in the second half. But I thought the biggest drama in the film — the lead-up to the dump of the 90,000 documents on the websites of the Guardian, the NY Times, Der Spiegel, and other publications — was nicely handled. That is, those scenes portrayed nicely all the competing interests, motives, and worries, including by two US State Department heads (Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci).
It was good, I thought, because it forced everyone in the theater to consider all sides of the question about this form of exposure — not only the question of whether the dump of documents might lead to blood being spilled, but also whether it’s more honest to dump documents unredacted. It was fascinating. You’ll have to tell me your opinion of this too, JMM.
But in addition, there’s another question I find important: does this film ultimately send the message that WikiLeaks would have been a fine and dandy new mode of communication but for its egomaniacal leader?
Assange stressed again and again that he was primarily concerned with protecting the whistleblowers, the so-called sources. Anonymity was crucial, otherwise no one would leak anything to them. And that was an honest and accurate appraisal of the process. But as you said, he was totally dishonest about everything else. Even Daniel was deceived.
So the question of his character is something that none of us, not even Josh Singer the writer, or Bill Condon, the director, can answer.
Actually, I couldn’t believe that Assange was so gung-ho to publish the docs without any redacting. Did that send Assange’s credibility out the window for you?
Didion: Honestly, I’m still on the fence about how I feel about the film being a referendum on Assange’s character, especially as it’s been told by a former associate. On the fence, because I’m more interested in the establishment of WikiLeaks as an institution with the potential to achieve a greater degree of transparency than our profit-driven fourth estate has managed recently. All the attention to Assange seems like a red herring; shouldn’t we be asking harder questions about the institution rather than its colorful central figure?
But maybe that’s the problem — it’s hard for me to think of this simply as a film with its own internal logic, rather than as a comment on real-life institutions and people.
I must say that the way the film portrays Assange’s growing sense of urgency and paranoia — his eagerness to publish the documents so hastily — was badly handled. The film played it as a sign of his recklessness; but is it so wrong to argue that censoring any part of the docs, even a person’s name or the location of a battle, might limit the documents’ usefulness? In other words, even though the film played it as part of Assange’s messianism, I found his point worthy of a conversation.
JMM: Sure. It is an interesting question. That could have been the whole point of the film. But I’ll ask you about the usefulness. Who would benefit from the knowledge that Agency X, in Country Z, did this or that? It would all be after the fact of the events, and could precipitate following events. I’m saying that it is a slippery slope – and the real life stuff that followed now has Assange living sequestered in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. So who benefited? – the usefulness can’t really be quantified.
On the other hand, I really do like that you were able to leap from the cinema that we saw and take that information and apply it to the real world. I’m still more grounded to the film itself than the worldly aftermath.
Didion: that’s what makes you such a good reviewer! that’s what we’re supposed to do!
It occurs to me that my refusal to see this merely as a thriller, but also as a film with real-life implications, springs from some essential disappointments. I don’t mean to suggest the film is bad; far from it. But as you can see, I’m disappointed that it was so much about Assange, even though I recognize what a compelling character he is.
On that note, I must say that Cumberbatch did a fabulous job — I had to google the real Assange afterward to remind myself what he actually looked like. Cumberbatch not only got the charm and the deceiving back stories right; he also got Assange’s methodical manner of speaking, his tics…those beady eyes, darting around a room, over-thinking everything. It was a terrific performance. What did you think of the acting overall?
JMM: Sorry Didion, I’m not much of a Cumberbatch fan at all. He wore wigs and false teeth to look the part, and he just doesn’t impress me. Which is not to say he wasn’t good in the role. Personally, I enjoyed Brühl more. Maybe it was the deceptive manner by Assange that kept me from either liking him, or being partial to him. Brühl, on the other hand, was a far more open character, one that was infinitely more accessible.
I liked Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci better. But I just couldn’t get my arms, or my head around Cumberbatch.
Didion: I wonder — was it the acting or the character?
I liked Brühl too (and had only seen him in The Fall, the Gillian Anderson series, before now), but for the most part, he just didn’t do a lot with the character except function as a nice window through which to see Assange.
Linney and Tucci were great! Taking on smaller roles like these must be such a treat for seasoned actors like them. I swear, I’d pay to watch Stanley Tucci read the phone book.
We probably can’t answer the question of why the film hasn’t succeeded at the box office, but I’m curious: do you think the film should have done well? is it worth the big budget, the big advertising campaign?
JMM: Another great question, Didion. I’m thinking that the film is disappointing in so many ways. I’m also thinking that Assange is not particularly important at the moment, even though WikiLeaks still exists. I’m also thinking that Dreamworks made a mistake with Cumberbatch. I just don’t see him selling tickets. Granted, Redford and Hoffman are now in their 70s, but when you think of All The President’s Men – a great film about revealing the truth – you can say that film was a great film with great stars who sold tickets on their names.
We can’t say that about the actors here in The Fifth Estate can we?
The story had all the relevance and importance – yet – no one wants to see it.
Didion: And All the President’s Men was such an uncomplicated story in contrast, wasn’t it? Crusading journalists uncovering increasingly fraught information that leads them farther up the chain of command. Whereas it’s hard for anyone but the most zealous to find WikiLeaks to be straightforwardly heroic. These two films would make fascinating counterpoint in a college class about the public’s views about the media, actually!
Cumberbatch might not be your cup of tea, but you frame the problem exactly: focusing the story on Assange is going to turn people away from the film. Tell me, purely on the subject of the film as a thriller, you’ve mentioned that you were disappointed. Do you think this is the fault of the storytelling, the filming, or something more pervasive about the film?
JMM: As I said earlier – the first half of the film was kind of tedious, not at all to my liking. Guys at keyboards, typing furiously isn’t scintillating film making. Then factor that what we saw on their screens wasn’t the least bit accessible to a standard viewer. So even if we give them the first hour to establish the characters and the narrative – it left me cold. It gains some traction in the second half, but by then the two main characters were going in opposite directions.
Condon handled his cameras quite well, and Singer did manage to make the film have some excellent pace – but only in the second half.
Didion: The fact that all of us spend all our time in front of screens these days is going to make modern thrillers incredibly boring, isn’t it? I don’t feel as negatively about the online screen time the characters engaged in; I actually thought about whether there’s a way to make that stuff riveting for future audiences. (Actually, the series Sherlock did some interesting work with graphics onscreen representing texting.) But it’s not the same as Robert Redford walking into creepy parking garages, or Dustin Hoffman on the phone and frantically taking notes on his interviews, is it?
In the end I think Hollywood hasn’t quite figured out how to make real-time computer/internet exchange exciting. And in the end, isn’t that really what films like The Social Network and The Fifth Estate are all about? and they’re a sign of things to come.
JMM: Smart phones, tablets, and the like get more and more intricate and evolve every month. But filmmaking? Not so much. At least not in this one.
Didion: Exactly! I wonder if they’ll find a more elaborate kind of personal viewing experience — high-tech 3D glasses that interact with the film’s story, for example — to enhance our sense of what’s going on onscreen? A sort of Google Glass experience for the theater.
Meanwhile, back here in October 2013, I have to pronounce myself slightly disappointed overall. If pressed, I’d give the film something like 3 stars out of 5 — a perfectly watchable thriller, but one that doesn’t do anything very interesting or new. That’s ultimately what gets me about this film. On the one hand, it does a nice job of convincing me that WikiLeaks is a thoroughly new institution worthy of a moniker like The Fifth Estate. On the other hand, it’s an old-fashioned story about a follower who grows disillusioned with his cult of personality leader. Neither the story nor the filmmaking are innovative or particularly thought-provoking, even as the film raises some good questions about WikiLeaks’ central aims and motives.
JMM: Nice summary Didion. I’ll agree to a 3.0 out of five as well. There’s nothing wrong with old stories if told well, And we don’t need a whole lot of innovative technical wizardry if told well.
What was it that Berg’s girlfriend Anke called Assange – an asshole? Well, you can make a good story about one of those too.
Didion: Okay, one final question for you, JMM. At the very end of the film — and I promise, this doesn’t spoil anything — Cumberbatch appears neatly coiffed, sitting in a chair, as if for a televised interview. He’s answering questions, including about “the WikiLeaks movie,” and he frankly dismisses the project. In other words, the film allows Assange to have the last word. What did you think of that filmmaking choice?
JMM: You mean the coda at the end when Assange disavowed the film? I have two thoughts on that – it seemed tacked on as an after thought. At that point – or should I say before that – the film was over. It wasn’t necessary.
Didion: Honestly, I kind of liked it. It seemed so … oddly eager to have Assange weigh in, even if he disavowed it.
JMM: Would you have liked it better if they used the real Assange who was interviewed by Stephen Colbert?
Didion: No, actually. I liked it that Cumberbatch remained our version of Assange… and he was just as ambivalent a character in those scenes as he’d been earlier in the film. I think I found it so weird because on some level Condon wanted to show Assange’s opposition to the film as a film. I thought that brief scene really did add something oddly self-conscious about this being a film.
JMM: Yes, in that context, as a directorial choice by Bill Condon, it did add a dimension. But it didn’t increase my appreciation on the overall film.
Didion: So, we weren’t entranced … and the film left us with some fairly damning evidence about Assange’s character. But as always, talking with you about the film — particularly so soon after seeing it — has been both highly enjoyable and useful in debriefing about its qualities. Thanks, JMM, as always for the pleasure of a happy-hour movie chat!
JMM: I’m happy to have the opportunity to discuss film with you at any time. And it was a particular pleasure this time as neither of us was gushing with praise. Until next time…