It’s hard to believe WikiLeaks creator/ founder Julian Assange is as much of an eccentric sociopath in real life as he is portrayed in The Fifth Estate – but if he is (and indeed, even if he is not quite), one could hardly have picked a more appropriate actor to play the part than sociopath extraordinaire Sherlock Holmes, aka Benedict Cumberbatch (there is more than one occasion early in the movie where you could confuse the two).
Of course I know Cumberbatch has been in other things since Sherlock (check out my review of Star Trek Into Darkness here) but inevitably you find yourself asking, on your way into the cinema, how interesting this film would have appeared without his BBC past. I myself only realised ‘WikiLeaks’ was at the plot’s centre around five minutes in, proving that I, like most other fickle cinema-goers, will happily pay to see a movie for no other reason than it has a face I recognise plastered all over the poster. But it’s also probably got a lot to do with the little attention I pay to trailers – which these days can give away an entire film if you’re not careful.
The Fifth Estate is set around the numerous cases that have helped catapult the WikiLeaks organisation to fame since 2006, such as leaking the membership list of the British National Party – just one incident of many that have helped to both endear the organisation to the British public and make them the fearsome conscience of governments everywhere. This is no exaggeration: its uncovering and publishing of gunfight footage from the 2007 Baghdad airstrike (in which innocent Iraqi journalists were killed) put them in the warpath of the United States government themselves. If the incident was to teach politicians anything, it was that cover-ups are no longer so easily covered up, nor are the public so content with not having all of the facts in this modern digital era.
Assange inevitably takes centre stage, but the film also stars Peter Capaldi (the upcoming twelfth Doctor), David Thewlis (Harry Potter) and Daniel Bruhl (Inglorious Basterds) who is perhaps the closest challenger to Cumberbatch for the title of ‘star of the show’.
Ultimately the movie is rather entertaining as a political thriller/ drama hybrid that feels like a mix between State of Play (2009) and The Social Network (2010). If you liked those, you’ll probably like this, regardless of whatever background knowledge of WikiLeaks you have beforehand. Undoubtedly those who do have strong feelings towards the organisation will be those who have similar strong feelings towards its place in terms of quality and integrity (it does portray a one-sided view, as Julian Assange himself refused to have any part in the film and labelled it ‘fiction masquerading as fact’).
But again, you could justifiably ask how interesting this film would be if Cumberbatch had not featured in it. The honest answer is: not very. There is no doubt that Benedict steals almost every scene that he is in, and without him you could imagine the whole thing fading into obscurity as just another media-savvy bit of political propaganda that is perhaps too smart for its own good at times. Cumberbatch himself (as Assange) reaffirms this in the films memorable and humourous final scene, in which he claims that “it’s ALL about you, the public… and me, too”. If The Fifth Estate is anything to go by, one can hardly argue with him.
6 / 10.