/ 13 December 2013

‘Fifth Estate’ leaves too many questions unanswered

Julian Assange has had to seek asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy after Wikileaks evelations.
Julian Assange has had to seek asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy after Wikileaks evelations.

The Fifth Estate, about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, is one long, boring movie. The long part is not their fault; the movie actually runs for a respectable 128 minutes. Nu Metro's the culprit on that front. They screened the movie in their swanky new cinemas – with legroom and cushy seats to make the most avid first-class plane traveller envious – but it seems no one bothered to check whether the film would actually play on the new screens.

So for about an hour or so we sat while someone behind the scenes tried to decode the problem. By the time they got the movie resolution right, I was thirsty from sucking all the salt from my popcorn box out of boredom, and had seen the beginning montage depicting the history of news enough times to declare the film, and its title, unimaginative. The boring part belongs to the moviemakers, though, and it was confirmed a few days ago by the news that the movie is one of the year’s biggest underachievers.

The Fifth Estate has everything going for it: it's hot off the press about a man who has been one of the biggest newsmakers of the century. Assange started WikiLeaks in 2006 by publishing unedited government secrets. He's been called a national, if not global, security threat by some, but is a hero to many, and proved the important role of citizen journalism in modern media (hence Fifth Estate, duh).

A hacker, his work challenged the traditional media's stronghold on news so much that The UK's Guardian thought it best to work with him rather than against him. The movie is also partly based on a tell-all book by Assange's former colleague and confidant Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website. Domscheit-Berg was Assange's second-in-command and disciple, until Assange's methods started challenging his own sense of ethics about how news should be told and disseminated.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Assange, pulls out all the stops, from the cyborg-like voice, to the ghostly hair. It does help that Cumberbatch is much better-looking than the real Assange. As mesmerising as he is, maybe he takes too much screen time. The movie seems to want us to conclude that Assange is an unfeeling, self-involved tyrant. That's fine, but what is always more interesting about a story are the hard questions it raises, not the fast and easy answers it gives.

And so the major problem of the movie is that it is too concerned with the man and not enough with the issues he raises. Like much of the world, Fifth Estate is focused on chasing Assange around the globe and loses focus on the interesting and modern questions that his work is forcing us to consider. The rights and wrongs of our new media practices, and how this is shaping how we tell news now and in the future. I wanted to get deeper into the newsrooms and hear how editors, the self-appointed custodians of truth, wrangle with the issue of a new media kid on the block.

A missed opportunity, touched on at the beginning, is the rivalry between the biggest papers in the world, the Guardian and the New York Times. Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci play a pair of bureaucrats having to deal with the biggest media storm of their careers and all we get are a few quips and conversations. What does this say for governments of the future – issues that Barack Obama is dealing with currently? And there are many other characters and personalities who never really make it to the forefront.

And, of course, there are the issues of the difficulty of telling a story about the internet, as one reviewer pointed out, because much of the drama and conversations happen online. Fifth Estate deals with this problem by creating a fictional world where hackers work, a web of computers unbounded by any walls, which feels inauthentic when so much of the movie is set in the physical.

The movie in general is too reliant on Assange to be the film's vehicle that it seems to lack depth. This could have been a great story about citizen journalism but unfortunately leaves very little for us to chew on.