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

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | October 18, 2013 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | October 18, 2013 |

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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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.