All progress depends on the unreasonable man: 'The Fifth Estate'
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All progress depends on the unreasonable man: 'The Fifth Estate'

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film Reviews | October 18, 2013 | Comments ()


The Fifth Estate is a movie that is nowhere near as good as the themes that it almost starts to address, themes of history and revolution, and the nature of those who would change the world. I ask you to be a little patient, as I come at the film somewhat obliquely.

Rosa Parks was a saint, and that wasn’t an accident. The Civil Rights movement of the time had constructed the events that unfolded around her long before they knew who she would be. But they bided their time and waited, not rising to other men and women who took similar stands, because they weren’t quite right for this strike. But everything fell into motion at that right moment when the perfect sympathetic woman took that stand. That made her a rarity in human history.

But generally we do not get to pick the heroes of history. They hand themselves to us with their own vanity and madness, seizing historical moments like they own them. In a way they do though, because sane men would let such moments pass, thinking of their families, their children, their lives. As Herzen said, history is the autobiography of a madman.

The French Revolution tried to end a thousand years of silent horror and murder, but did so in a frenzy of blood. So we jump to one conclusion or another, that the Revolution’s evil was justified, that its good does not overrule the iron law of two wrongs never making a right, or that it was good in spirit but corrupted by evil or misguided men. I think rather that revolutions are almost inevitably governed by the sorts of men who unleash the torrents of blood, because reasonable men do not become revolutionaries, because it is indeed the unreasonable men upon whom all progress depends.

But it’s a terrible relationship we have with these men. Not the easy heroes of statesmen and generals, but the ones who boil up from below to tear down the powerful. We need them, but they carry with them the whirlwind. That’s not to justify all of their actions as being some sort of necessary evils that only they have the courage to pull the trigger on. No, what it means it that the needed good they do will come swarming with collateral chaos.

The things that make them great are precisely the same things that make them terrible. The two cannot be separated from each other. And so we come to Julian Assange.

Julian Assange is a legend in many circles, a saint of the cyber age who broke the back of old journalism with volunteers and a handful of scattered servers. But he’s also reviled in others, a fanatic so obsessed with his cause that he would lie and betray his fellows, and wreak anarchy upon the international community for no reason other than because he could. It’s equal odds whether you’ll hear his name mentioned in the same sentence as “hero” or “traitor”.

There is one Assange who says the hell with the promises he has made and releases the thousands of war logs and diplomatic cables with the names of informants, informants that are now at risk of death and worse. There is another Assange who believed in the power of anonymous informants, in using the monumental power of Internet communications to allow the smallest to expose the lies of the strong. But those two Assanges are not only the same man, they are inseparable from each other. The madness that makes one sacrifice everything to fight power cannot be boxed and made sane when convenient.

That is the story that The Fifth Estate tells at its best moments, but its best moments are sadly a minority of the film. It has trouble establishing exactly what it wants to be, dancing from city to city and constantly filling the screen with torrents of headlines and snippets of journalists talking. It’s a lazy and ineffective form of montage, such that the first half of the film drags interminably, more impressed with listing every single damned leak that Wikileaks published leading up to the big ones we’ve all heard of, than with actually delving into these characters. Yeah, we get it, the Internet makes communication easy. That’s not saying anything new. The characters involved are the interesting ones, but the movie seems mostly interested in trying to churn out a pedantic thriller instead.

Benedict Cumberbatch is fantastic as Assange, and almost everything worth seeing in this film revolves around his acting, this dance between insecure, furious, rude, driven, and charismatic. What the film has done more than anything is establish that there is a story worth telling here, and that Cumberbatch should play the lead. It’s just that the filmmakers decided instead to spend vast swaths of the film with Assange’s more grounded partner in Wikileaks, Daniel. And rather than giving us a window into a world, Daniel is instead just a drag, an opaque character given no background and no motivations, and yet is the focus of the film’s action. The decision to take Cumberbatch and the enthralling character he constructs and shove him into the background is just inexplicable to me.

There could be an interesting film here if it was presented as a story of two men, playing foil to each other. At times the film acknowledges that Assange is the mad man and Daniel the sane one, but it never seems to know what to do with that tension. Likewise, the film at times returns to this idea of the ironies that a man with so many secrets in his past is so dedicated to transparent information, but it’s clumsy and doesn’t run throughout, despite being slammed into the final scene as if the entire film had led up to that moment. It’s very much a film that has no idea what it actually wants to be, leaving raw edges throughout, and held together only by Cumberbatch’s performance.

There is a wonderful film to be made from this story, but this just isn’t it.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here and order his novel here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Ginger

    Saw this on Friday night with a friend, and we agreed that the performances were great, Cumberbatch was amazing, and it's a really intriguing film. I read many of the negative reviews but couldn't agree with them, beyond the CGI being clunky and the film needing more Assange, less Berg. I feel like there was always going to be a great deal of negativity towards the film, because it's a divisive subject about a divisive person, whose story is still being told.

  • pisswizard

    Try this one instead!

    It's a telemovie but by the sounds of it, it does a much better job of accounting for the bundle of contradictions that is Assange, since it depicts him in his formative years.

    Plus - and sorry to besmirch the Cumberbatch - since Underground is actually Australian the accents are much less jarring :/ the 'batch did a pretty good job with an admittedly tricky accent from the snippets of Fifth Estate that I've seen, but as an Aussie I always find put-on Aus accents pretty painful to listen to....

  • manting

    I am suffering from Cumberbatch exhaustion. I do realize that I am in the minority on this site which should be renamed Pajiba - Anna Kendricks and Benedict Cumberbatch worshipers (which I don't get because Kendricks has yet to make a decent movie in which she stars and Cumberbatch is in everything and he was terrible in Star Trek.)

  • F'mal DeHyde

    I couldn't agree with you more and I upvoted you to counteract the twit that downvoted you.

  • sanity fair

    As someone who once wanted to make a living as a writer, I remain humbled and in awe of your talent, SLW. And grateful that I have chosen a different career.

  • Dragonchild

    My Rule #1 in writing: Have something to write about. In this regard SLW is probably better than most. I can't tell you the first thing about his literary style beyond "it works", which is NOT to say it's bad but obviously the point comes first. SLW chases a theme upstream until he finds the source, whether it's the
    Fountain of Youth itself, a spawning pool or an cesspool for
    agricultural waste. It makes for some pretty powerful writing. I contrast it to F. Scott Fitzgerald -- one of the most talented writers of the 20th century, but he spent an inexplicably interminable amount of time writing about first-world problems because he wanted the world to know about his melodramatic emo self-discovery with all the maturity of a toked-up garage band.

  • IngridToday

    Cumberbatch looks terrible with blonde hair.

  • He looks like the pod-race commentators from 'The Phantom Menace.'

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Which one? Left or right?

  • I gotta go with the one on the right, personally. It's a fair resemblance either way, but I think the righty edges out the win.

  • Cory

    SLW, your writing is Morgan Freeman's voice for the deaf.

  • Kate

    Just wanted to clarify something.

    "There is one Assange who says the hell with the promises he has made and releases the thousands of war logs and diplomatic cables with the names of informants, informants that are now at risk of death and worse."

    Wikileaks only released the unredacted cables after the password to the encrypted files became public and Cryptome published them all. They did that so that people could use Wikileaks specially created search engine and find out if they were in danger/knew someone in danger much quicker. There have been no incidents connected to this release so far.

    How did the password become public? Two writers from the Guardian wrote a book, a book this film is partly based on, and used the password as a chapter title, in which they talked all about how it was the super secret password to the cables (it's clear in the pasage that they find the whole encryption thing faintly ridiculous and think Assange is just playing at being 007). When their mistake is revealed they blame Assange for this error in judgment, because he didn't explicitly tell them that extremely sensitive passwords shouldn't be written down verbatim in books. Anyway, Assange and other Wikileaks staff kept this a secret for over a year in the hopes that no one would connect the dots, and that was working, but at some point Daniel Domsheit-Berg (the same Daniel as in this movie) read the book, most likely after the rights to his book and the Guardian book were bought for this movie, and he started blabbing to various media outlets. Within a day the unredacted cables were everywhere, and both The Guardian writers and DDB were spinning it as all Assange's fault while Wikileaks was busy working with Amnesty International, trying to limit the damage.

    There are so many other problems with this movie, I don't know where to start. I will just point out that Daniel was never a co-founder, partner, right hand man etc. etc. He was just one of about a dozen volunteers, and for a couple of months he was a spokesperson for Wikileaks in Germany. Mostly he did stuff like order Wikileaks T-shirts and write emails thanking people for donating to Wikileaks. These days he makes a very nice living selling contradictory stories about his experience with Assange and Wikileaks.

  • Stephen Nein

    Wherein, I think we see one of the root causes for The Fifth Estate's return to Daniel, even though he's a drag on the plot.

  • Of the two Assanges it talks about, does the film let on which one was the rapist?

  • annika

    I can't tell you how much I love this comment. I'm glad I wasn't the only one thinking that. (But of course it wasn't *really* rape, right? I mean those women had the audacity to be blonde and have boobs. Their safety and humanity mean nothing next to a true "hero,")

    I'd also like to ask whether the script featured Assange calling my beloved home of Sweden "the Saudi Arabia of feminism?"

  • manting

    just because someone is accused of rape doesn't mean they are guilty. He has yet to be even formally charged or questioned. Don't be a Nancy Grace. If he is guilty I hope they punish him to the full extent of Swedish Law but only after he is given due process under Swedish Law.

  • The sexual assault charges are addressed in text as the film ends, along with a number of other items. As both the alleged crimes and the filing of charges happen after the events of the film, I feel that's appropriate.

  • Jerce

    Goddamn, Pajiba, do you know how lucky you are to have SLW writing for you?
    To hell with the movie--everyone in the world should read this review.

  • Internet Commenter #6725


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