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The Fifth Estate: Freedom of information hailed, but portrayal of the whistleblower unflattering


Movie Review by Sergio Martinez


WikiLeaks has been regarded as a landmark in the fields of communications and freedom of information: thanks to the actions of its founder, Julian Assange, the world has been able to know what governments, especially the American one, and big corporations have been doing at the expenses of ordinary citizens everywhere. Of course the actions of WikiLeaks while hailed as an epitome of the principle of freedom of information, have also been seen as a source of embarrassment for the American government because of the confidential memos containing uncomplimentary comments on its allies, and even worse, a potential danger for those who around the world serve as informants for American agencies.


“The Fifth Estate,” directed by Bill Condon and R.J. Cutler, seems to reflect that ambiguity with which some in the U.S. may see Assange’s work: on the one hand, revelations such as the deliberate killing of civilians by the U.S, military in Iraq fits exactly the role that the free press must fulfill in a supposedly democratic society inspired by the liberal principles of the Enlightenment, principles somehow present in the American constitution. On the other hand, the U.S. as a super power and defender of certain strategic and economic interests feels that it is O.K. to resort to some practices contrary to ethical or even international legal obligations, and that to accomplish it a dosage of secrecy is required. By breaking into that secrecy, Assange and his WikiLeaks have incurred the ire of the U.S. political and military establishment and that is well reflected in the movie.


FifthEstate2Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is presented as a whistleblower who is totally devoted to his mission and that makes Daniel (Dan Stevens) a German computer whiz to join him in what for him is more a battle over technological savvy than anything else. Although “The Fifth Estate” takes the form of a docudrama, its point of view is not neutral since the narration is mostly from Daniel’s perspective. This is an important point because the relation between Daniel and Assange would get sour and some of the criticisms of the WikiLeaks founder, especially in the last part of the film, are more a reflection of Daniel’s personal view of the character.


“The Fifth Estate” resorts to a very dynamic narrative, making a good use of visuals that create an atmosphere where technology is dominant. There is also a solid acting and a good setting for the story. It is in the presentation of the facts where the movie approaches Assange with some bias, while on the other hand allowing Daniel’s personal fight with Assange to obscure other more important issues, among them the accusations of sexual misconduct by a couple of Swedish women which in turn led their country to request Assange’s extradition from Britain causing the journalist to take asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. The movie makes only a passing reference to that episode and it doesn’t mention that he was ready to testify in Sweden and argue his innocence as long as that country or Britain guarantee that he would not be sent to the U.S. Neither Sweden nor Britain were ready to give those assurances, which make one wonders who was really behind the accusations against the whistleblower.


“The Fifth  Estate” is an interesting although somehow biased view of Assange and his work. Especially suitable to those interested in international politics, current events, and the role of the media.


Length: 124 min.

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