The Fifth Estate: Portrait of a genius as a bit of a jerk

(Why Julian Assange won’t be crashing the red carpet at TIFF)

by Brian D. Johnson

Frank Connor / Dreamworks

It’s hard to imagine a movie nipping at the heels of history more closely than The Fifth Estate, which opens the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 5. Just weeks after Bradley Manning (now Chelsea Manning) was slapped with his prison sentence for unleashing military secrets, and as explosive new leaks from Edward Snowden still ricochet through the media, the man who opened the gates for a world of whistle-blowers now makes his entrance as the charismatic anti-hero of a major studio picture.

But WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange won’t be crashing the red carpet at TIFF. Still in asylum at London’s Ecuadorian embassy, avoiding extradition on allegations of sexual assault from Sweden, he’s also a sworn enemy of the film. After seeing the trailer and an early, leaked draft of the script, he’s condemned it as “a massive propaganda attack on WikiLeaks.” But The Fifth Estate’s Oscar-winning director, Bill Condon (Kinsey, Dreamgirls), expects nothing less from the man he has depicted as a megalomaniac. “He’s clever,” says Condon, on the phone from New York. “He conflates anything that might be critical of him as an attack on WikiLeaks. But he may be surprised at how even-handed a portrait it is. Nobody set out to make some kind of hit job. We want to understand what makes him tick. I came to admire him in many ways.”

The Fifth Estate, which opens commercially on Oct. 18, does for Assange what The Social Network did for Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg. It portrays him as a visionary who is pathologically insensitive, a genius with a cruel wit whose single-minded ambition leads him to betray his partners and his sources. Just as Zuckerberg was cast as a pioneer of social media who is devoid of social skills, Assange comes across as a populist crusader with an allergy to actual people. As he admits with a smirk in the film, “I’ve heard people say I dangle on the autistic spectrum.”

With a thatch of white hair, and the bottled-up energy of an albino time bomb, Assange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s the intense British actor whose air of otherworldly intellect has fuelled roles ranging from Sherlock Holmes to the villain in the latest Star Trek movie. (Suddenly ubiquitous, Cumberbatch also stars in two other Oscar-pedigree movies premiering at TIFF—12 Years a Slave and August: Osage County.) “He’s able to play the most complicated emotions,” says Condon. “And there’s something about Benedict and Julian that does intersect. First of all, [Benedict] is crazy smart. There’s a really extraordinary intelligence that’s difficult to fake. Even physically . . . ” Then Condon trails off, perhaps loath to talk about the fact that Cumberbatch’s face is, well, as unusual as his name. Finally, he adds, “There are things about Assange that are initially strange and off-putting. Benedict can capture those, then convey just so many layers of what’s going on underneath.”

The drama pivots on Assange’s fractious relationship with his ex-colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), whose book, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website, informed the script along with another book by two British journalists. Engineered as a propulsive thriller, the story is driven by the mystery of Assange’s past. He’s depicted as a kind of revolutionary cult leader, haunted by a childhood stint in a New Age sect that had all the kids dye their hair blond. As one character notes, “only someone so obsessed with his own secrets could have come up with a way of exposing everyone else’s.” So is Assange hero or villain? Both, says Condon. “The whole idea of the movie is to lay out that question, to grapple with those issues of transparency versus privacy in the brave new world of citizen journalism. Ideally you’ll change your mind about the issues many times as you watch it.”

It seems Assange’s mind is already made up. But in a final twist of its mirror-ball narrative, the film anticipates his response in a coda that has him addressing the camera with wry incredulity. “A WikiLeaks movie?” Cumberbatch’s Assange asks. He then notes that the audience will have to “look beyond this story, any story” to find the truth. Just don’t expect Assange himself to be leaking it any time soon.

Note to readers: This article has been updated since publication to reflect that Assange faces allegations — not charges — of sexual assault.




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The Fifth Estate: Portrait of a genius as a bit of a jerk

  1. “avoiding extradition on sexual assault charges from Sweden”

    Don’t expect your readers to take your word for it about this film if you get facts like the one above wrong. There are no charges. Assange is only wanted for questioning. Even the Chief Justice of Sweden’s Supreme Court agrees with Assange that there is absolutely nothing stopping the Swedish prosecutor from questioning Assange in London (other than a desire to see him in a Swedish prison cell before even asking him for his side of the story of these allegations; now why might that be so crucial?).

    This film basically reflects the viewpoint of Daniel Domscheit-Berg – who Daniel Bruhl reckons is “trustworthy”, god help us – and who fled Iceland on February 7, 2010 – four days after Chelsea Manning’s first upload – with some kind of “nervous breakdown” (so he wasn’t even around during all Wikileaks 2010 releases, despite taking credit for them); quickly met and married a “Government Liaison for Innovative Programs” executive for Microsoft (nah, nothing to do with NSA backdoors, of course!); kept misrepresenting himself as the “founder” of Wikileaks in the German press; sabotaged Wikileaks mail server (and got caught red-handed); purloined Wikileaks donations via the Wau Holland Foundation; stole Wikileaks submission platform and tried to set up a (stillborn) rival leaks organisation; destroyed unpublished whistleblower submissions stolen from Wikileaks; wrote a gossipy and libellous book and has made his fortune by maligning Assange and from cash-in film projects, like this one, ever since.

    • It is so difficult these days figuring out who is right and who is wrong. Everybody including the press tells a different story and none of them are the same.
      I have no knowledge about anything you talk about in your second paragraph, but I can agree with you on the first paragraph about him wanted for questioning only. All the charges seem extremely trumped up.
      I am sure the American government would like to see him go down and I can guess that they are pressuring the Swedish government in to those charges.

      • Do you honestly believe that Assange’s lawyers did not present “he is only wanted for questioning” during Assange’s extradition order?

        • I know that the women that claimed he sexually assaulted them were pressured by the government to make the complaint and that the sex was consensual. Maybe that is why he has not been extradited.

          • Maybe what was meant was non-consensual, because Assange has always claimed it was consensual.

            It is the description of accusations that indicated that consent was absent.

            The only reason he has not been extradited is that Correa interfering in Sweden’s and the UK’s legal system.

            Assange will surrender once Correa is voted out of office, or Correa becomes bored of him.

    • Why do people persist in repeating this long-refuted nonsense?

      “Assange is not wanted merely for questioning.

      “He is wanted for arrest.

      “This arrest is for an alleged crime in Sweden as the procedural stage before charging (or “indictment”). Indeed, to those who complain that Assange has not yet been charged, the answer is simple: he cannot actually be charged until he is arrested.”

      See http://www.newstatesman.com/david-allen-green/2012/08/legal-myths-about-assange-extradition

      • Three things:

        Are you aware that David Allen Green is a UK media lawyer who has no specialist knowledge on either extradition law or Swedish law? That point he makes about questioning as a “procedural stage” just before formal charging? He made that bit up – there is no such stage in the Swedish prosecutorial process. He is well known for his personal animus against Julian Assange.

        Did you know that under Swedish law it is forbidden for a prosecutor to make a decision whether to charge – I’ll repeat that – TO MAKE A DECISION regarding whether to charge or not until the preliminary investigation is completed? This, obviously, would include questioning a suspect about the allegations made against him. Honestly, what kind of *justice* system moves ahead to either charges or trial in a he said/she said sexual crimes case before even ONCE hearing the suspect’s side of the story? Remember, Assange has only been questioned regarding one of the four allegations on the extradition warrant (the one about the “burst” condom, which the forensics report found had no DNA at all on it).

        Are you aware that, after the mess the UK courts have made to the safeguards enshrined in the Extradition Act 2003 in their efforts to get Assange off UK turf (all the court hearings in the UK were solely about the validity of the EAW warrant), that the UK has been forced to opt out of the EAW and will opt back in next year with two new provisos: the EAW cannot be used for trivial offences and there must be at least A DECISION TO CHARGE already made? The Swedish EAW against Assange will no longer be valid under the latter criteria.

        • PS. Are you accusing the head of the Swedish Supreme Court, Stefan Lindskop, of “repeating long-refuted nonsense”?

        • Some keeping on acting as if those questions were not addressed in court. What are you saying that Assange’s lawyers didn’t address his best interest? Are you saying that his lawyers did not seek every possible argument to block his extradition?

          Julian Assange is wanted for his assistance in the investigation complaints against him of 4 allegations of sexual assault. It prosecutors who decide how legal proceeding are commenced.

  2. It would have been better if you didn’t write about that fourth wall scene. It’s supposed to be a surprise to achieve the full effect of it.

  3. “He’s depicted as a kind of revolutionary cult leader, haunted by a childhood stint in a New Age sect that had all the kids dye their hair blond.”

    Uh, no. Julian’s family was never part of a cult. His mother’s lover had been raised in the Anne Hamilton-Byrne cult, but Julian didn’t know about that when he was jung and easily freudened. Is the rest of the film this heterofactual?

    The best way to understand Assange is to watch him yourself.
    Here’s a good interview (questions in Spanish, answers in English – easy to understand.)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJ7mH81ryeg

    What kind of person does he seem to be?

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