I caught The Fifth Estate film this afternoon; I had my reservations that this fictional (based on true facts, as they say) take on Assange and WikiLeaks would not match the excellent We Steal Secrets documentary I saw at the Edinburgh Film Festival earlier this year. Especially as the trailer tried to make it look like a thrilling espionage flick, although I thought wait till I see it, trailers, after all, are often misleading, edited by marketing bods, not the film-makers. Plus, y’know, this film also boasted Benedict Cumberbatch and his cheekbones. So off to the cinema I went.
Sadly I have to say despite an (as usual) excellent performance from Cumberbatch (playing Julian Assange and bringing out his mix of both prophet and svengali like user and narcissist), my fears were confirmed – this was a dreadful, utterly cliche-ridden film. Within the first half hour I was tired of it and the hackneyed, poorly thought out and executed attempts to ‘sex up the dossier’ – retrieving information, posting it online, hacking, they don’t make for very exciting visuals. And how many times since the 80s have we seen Hollywood coming up with all sorts of stupid-looking attempts to make them look fast-paced, exciting, thrilling even? From Hackers to Swordfish Hollywood has an abysmal record on how to portray this kind of work on a screen. Don’t get me wrong, I do sympathise a bit, the film-makers want to make it look a bit sexier for the viewers but if they depict it realistically it won’t look that way. This is the same reason why almost every car shot in the petrol tank or driven off the road into a crash in Hollywood movies then explodes. They don’t in real life, but boy it looks more fun on the screen. But I would submit the sort of people who are interested in the WikiLeaks story do not need it to be Hollywoodized and are capable of accepting a reasonable depiction of information gathering and dissemination, so why the urge to make it look like this? It’s not a popcorn movie, for goodness sake.
So within the first thirty minutes lots of rapid cuts back and forth to try and create tension, the old rotate around the hacker quickly as they type away, have screens that have multiple windows streaming gobbledegook that is just nonsense, the old screen reflected in the lens of someone’s glasses and more shots anyone who has seen more than a few movies will recognise. There’s very little in the editing and cinematography that is interesting or unusual here, instead it lazily lifts already stereotypical ideas of how to show IT and hacking and recycles it, albeit with many more quick cuts. Although that said, the use of a large, dark office space repeatedly to symbolise how the organisation works (or doesn’t!) was not half bad.
So that style had me wanting to walk out after half an hour, but I stuck to it to see how the narrative would go. Sadly this fared no better – again to be fair this is a complex series of events and issues over years that had to be condensed down into a couple of hours running time, no simple task. So I accept streamlining of events and characters to try and fit into a film narrative, but sadly this is just to simplified. There is some attempt to show the moral quagmire of some of the events – yay, the good guys get inside secrets from a whistleblower and put it out there for all to read! But oops, they also put out documents naming people and their personal addresses, families, numbers, information that in the wrong hands could easily lead to them being hurt or worse. But again this is handled so ineptly it is clear the makers didn’t really know quite how to handle this film and also failed to have confidence in their audience, that the sort of cinema-goers who want to see a film based on this tale would be a bit better read and informed and would not need the events glammed up to keep them excited – as I said, this is not a spy thriller, for goodness sake.
The film also skips by the entire sexual assault matter Assange still has hanging over him (it gets a brief line in post-film credits) and poor Bradley Manning’s series of leaks which gave WikiLeaks its greatest coup and brought it to true world prominence via an alliance with the Guardian, Der Spiegel and New York Times is simply a device to push plot forward here, Manning is barely mentioned, his reasons for doing what he did and the huge personal cost is also lightly skipped over, which is unforgivable, in my opinion, with many others involved in WikiLeaks similarly given short-shrift. And yes, I know, simplifying for a narrative film, but the documentary managed to cover these people and aspects of the WikiLeaks stories, so why could the screenwriters here not manage it better?
My advice – forget this misfire of a film and instead check out the excellent documentary We Steal Secrets film, which, with a fraction of the budget, conveys far more details and information on these important events in a sensible, non-glamorous, manner where the events and presentation make it engrossing and exciting, not silly cuts and cliched scenes,and we see much more of the people and what they did, why they did it and the effects those events have had on them.