Rated R for language and some violence
Written by Josh Singer, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, David Leigh and Luke Harding
Directed by Bill Condon
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, David Thewlis and more
Every story is a love story. Whether it’s between lovers, friends, a leader and his acolyte or a man and the beliefs he holds most dear, it’s all about hearts getting stitched together and then ripped apart again.
At least, that’s the story being told in “The Fifth Estate,” an insightful and surprisingly emotional look at the early days of the secrets-leaking website Wikileaks. The new movie tells the story from the perspective of Daniel Berg, one of the men behind its stratospheric rise who eventually broke away from Julian Assange, the site’s founder. It’s a tragic, almost operatic tale of friendship, faith, zealotry, betrayal and being able to face the mirror in the morning that locates the beating heart beneath all the news reports and political commentary.
The story centers on Berg, played with a gentle, open-hearted idealism by Daniel Bruhl. The character is undoubtedly idealized – the real Berg wrote one of the books “The Fifth Estate” is based on – but Bruhl paints a convincing picture of a hacker who dreams of fighting for something greater than his humorless office job. He passionately wants to make the world a better place, but he has only a touch of anarchy about him. This Berg knows he’s a follower at heart, and he’s looking for a leader to believe in.
He finds that leader in Assange, played with a captivating mixture of awkwardness and mesmerizing intensity by Benedict Cumberbatch. Assange is passionate, convinced of his vision and wildly secretive, and he pulls Berg into the Wikileaks cause with the smirking delight of a man showing off his secret cave of treasures. He has enough ideas to fill the world, and the more practical and thoughtful Berg soon becomes Assange’s right hand as he works to turn those ideas into practical, functional reality.
The zeal both men have for the work, and the messy human complications that can get in the way of that zeal, turns their relationship into a subtle, incisive indictment on blind faith and the rise and collapse of any movement. Just looking at the light that seems to shine out of Bruhl’s face in different moments makes it clear that he takes genuine joy from the cause he’s fighting for. Even after Berg forcibly parts ways with both Assange and the cause, he radiates the same deep heartbreak of a man who’s just lost the love of his life.
Complicating and enriching all this is the very real friendship portrayed between the two men. Under shifting layers of arrogance, secrecy and passion, Cuberbatch gives Assange an almost choking sense of loneliness that seems to be truly assuaged by the other man’s presence. Berg is the first person Assange lets into the secret web surrounding Wikileaks, and Cumberbatch shows how wrenching it is for Assange to risk trusting another person that much. He leans on Berg heavily, so much so that any signs of independence strike him as betrayal. Assange is a selfish man, but on some level he’s also desperately afraid.
The end scene is Benedict Cumberbatch, still in character, giving an interview to an unseen reporter where he entirely dismisses the movie we’ve just seen. Assange himself has repeatedly attacked the movie, which only makes sense. After all, no one likes their broken heart revealed to the world.