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“God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another.”

– William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1

In The Fifth Estate, Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) quotes from Oscar Wilde’s essay The Critic as Artist: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” This mask of truth gazes on watchfully over the film,  shadows masterfully casting and concealing half-truths and illuminating half-lies. As modern society enters an age that begs the most important epistemological questions of our time, The Fifth Estate expertly rattles, discombobulates, and confounds the viewer’s very grasp of the truth, eroding the line between certainty and doubt and leaving behind no easy answers.

Themes of espionage and subterfuge do not befit a slow and contemplative form of direction. Instead, Condon’s direction is sharp and labyrinthine, racing through the narrative at the very speed of information transfer itself. It is fittingly imbued with a sense of urgency and tension that keeps a steady pulse throughout, intimated by speeding trains and glances over shoulders. Anonymity and surveillance is constantly at the forefront, brilliantly realised in the form of an office space in which Assange and his various Janus-esque inspired personas at desks illustrate the vast and infinite reach of information from a single source. It is thrilling and contagious, and Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) is rightly seduced out of complacency into action and purpose, entering into a moth-and-flame relationship with the magnetic Assange. As disillusion settles in, however, we see the cracks in the foundation, and Berg himself must dismantle – no, destroy – the office space he and Assange had built together. It is a curiously joyless and dismaying scene indeed, as the ashes of Wikileaks literally rain down around the damaged skeleton of the institution, as well as the Assange-Berg relationship.

While the supporting cast is pitch-perfect and settle seamlessly into their roles, it is Cumberbatch’s Assange who is a revelation. He is wily, cheeky, brilliant, inscrutable, and a masterclass in the art of subtle interpretation over impersonation, unrecognisably slipping into the character like a second skin. His physicality is coolly confident, his gaze startlingly reptilian, and his manner cannily reflecting all the perceptive details from Berg’s memoir, from his social awkwardness to his almost despotic zeal for his pursuit of justice. Crucially, Cumberbatch lends his Assange a nuanced vulnerability in a way that renders the character fully three-dimensional and human, but does not compromise the integrity of the man himself. In one of Cumberbatch’s most telling scenes of the film, his Assange asks Berg, “Do I have you?” – a fleeting moment of a childlike vulnerability that Berg revisits bittersweetly after their fallout. This vulnerability is tempered by the more public persona of Assange – the megalomaniac, narcissistic, brusque, paranoiac, but ferociously passionate and single-minded messiah of justice. The brilliance of Cumberbatch’s performance, and indeed, Singer’s rendering of the character, emanates from the fact that all of Assange’s accomplishments, failings, and flaws are laid bare, neither ascribing to him hero nor villain status. In real life, Assange is a complex and controversial figure; he is given much the same treatment in the film without any attempt to diminish or elevate. While it would be simple to paint Assange as either/or, the fact of the matter is that it is much more complex than the public will ever know. In the words of Assange’s favourite author Solzhenitsyn, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

The Fifth Estate is hardly a documentary, and does not posture itself in a way to be considered as one. Interestingly, it bears more in common with a work of fiction. Narratively speaking, Assange himself is the ultimate unreliable narrator. Throughout the film, the viewer is constantly led to guess by Assange about what may or may not be true – his childhood, the origins of his white hair, his personal life. His paradoxical attitude towards the goal of Wikileaks contrasted with allegations surrounding his personal life present a quandary regarding his very concern – the truth. In a brilliantly clever and ironic sequence, the film ends with an interview with Assange, now living in asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. In a swirl of tongue-in-cheek meta-perception, Assange comments on the possibility of a film about Wikileaks and himself, remarking briefly on the sexual assault allegations, and finally, in an ingenious meta-narrative statement to the camera, discusses the truth and the power of possessing it. “It is you,” he says, “they’re afraid of.” It is at this moment that the film steps outside itself and looks in. The truth, it says, is not to be found in the words of one person, or one film, or many. No one source will divulge the truth, but it is the moral, intrinsic responsibility of the individual to seek it out for him/herself, beyond the reach of institutions. By acknowledging its own fallibility as a purveyor of the ‘truth’, by admitting it too has a subjective perspective, The Fifth Estate comes full circle to its intent. It is a sharp and mesmerising piece of work that remains unusually factually balanced while delivering astute insights into the very human machinations of a modern phenomenon. The truth regarding Wikileaks and Assange may not be known for some while yet, but as René Descartes notes, “In order to seek truth, it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible, of all things.” Therefore, one cannot know the truth without also knowing doubt, and it is a healthy dose of the latter which will ultimately dissemble the most tenebrous of facades. Assange himself may not have approved of this film, but he is in fact closer to its purpose than he realises.

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