The Fifth Estate: How soon is too soon?
Barring something extraordinary happening in the next few days, when the DVD release of The Fifth Estate comes to the UK next week, its chief protagonist, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, will still be holed up in his temporary home in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Assange will have taken some comfort from the film’s disappointing showing at the box office last year. Costing over $30 million to make, the film had one of the most lacklustre receptions of 2013, taking only around $1.6 million on its opening weekend and scraping together a little over $8.5 million altogether. The founder of the controversial website might have been tempted to chalk that up as a win.
Assange was certainly vocal enough in his opposition to the film, even writing to its lead actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, in protest against his involvement in the film, criticising the actor for taking part in an account of his story that he described as being “riddled with inaccuracies”, even going as far as to describe Cumberbatch as a “hired gun” for taking part in a production he deems “irresponsible, counter-productive and harmful.”
Some argue that Assange’s main exception to Bill Condon’s film, billed as a “dramatic thriller based on real events”, is that the account of the events in question is not his. Instead, the narrative is based on the books written by his former right-hand man, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, played in the film by Daniel Brühl. The relationship between the two Wikileaks co-founders soured over the publishing of the cables leaked by Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, and the film’s central question is the moral debate between the two over how much information is too much, and whether it is better for some things to remain out of the public domain, particularly when the revelations could endanger the lives of innocent people.
Essential filmmaking or Hollywood "propaganda"?
Assange and his supporters have criticised the film’s version of events and labelled it a “massive propaganda attack” on the Wikileaks founder. While it is hardly anything new for Hollywood to put a pro-U.S. slant on a political story, the timing is questionable given that the ink on Manning’s conviction was barely dry before the film was released, and that the Wikileaks saga is far from over, with Assange still living under political asylum in order to fight extradition to Sweden for questioning over allegations of sexual abuse.
There is however some validity to the film’s viewpoint, drawn into focus by the subsequent revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and even more so by the stark difference in Snowden’s approach to releasing and publishing information. It is the supposedly indiscriminate way in which Assange chose to publish Manning’s information that forms the centrepiece of the moral debate in Condon’s film, and whichever side of the debate you find yourself on, it is one that is far from reaching its conclusion.
All in the timing...
So why the poor performance at the box office? The acting, particularly from Cumberbatch and Brühl, is predictably brilliant and Condon’s direction adds tension and drama without succumbing to hyperbole. Additionally, with subject matter of such obvious relevance and importance in our time, it’s difficult to see why the film didn’t draw larger audiences.
Maybe, then, it’s all about timing. With both Assange and Snowden still dominating much airtime and column inches both in the U.S. and elsewhere, perhaps the public has had their fill of this story for now. Which is a shame, not just because the film is very well executed, but because we are already losing interest in a story that has seismic consequences for our way of life. It’s possible though that the error in the film’s judgement, just as it has been in the media coverage of the same events, is that it tries to make Assange the individual the subject of importance, rather than the issue he is railing against.
Whatever the reasons for audiences staying away from cinemas, the film is likely to perform better on DVD & Blu-Ray, and so it should, because regardless of your politics The Fifth Estate is, at the very least, an excellent account of one side of a story that continues to change and challenge our relationships with the world’s established structures of power.