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‘Assange the Incurious’: Critics slam Fifth Estate biopic as unrevealing

Published time: October 26, 2013 00:37
Screenshot from 'The Fifth Estate'

Screenshot from 'The Fifth Estate'

The Fifth Estate, which cost about $30 mln to make, has raked in a paltry $1.7 mln at the US box office. It was the worst opening weekend yet for any 2013 film release with critics saying the movie revealed few truths either about Assange or WikiLeaks.

Bill Condon’s long-anticipated movie finished at number 8 in the US box office chart – despite a huge publicity push by its maker DreamWorks and a good deal of suspense drummed up by its outspoken protagonist Julian Assange, who said that the film’s lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch was a “hired gun” and that the film was “irresponsible, counterproductive and harmful.”  

The Fifth Estate released in the US on October 18 charts the progress of Australian journalist come freedom fighter Assange and the rise of his anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks with disclosures of hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables. 


A modern day David against an all-powerful Goliath. 

Given that Assange, who is holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and whose fate is very much undecided, has made the USA his public enemy number one, is it surprising that the movie has flopped with mainstream US audiences?

Assange has mounted a scathing attack on the film from his tiny room in Knightsbridge and in response WikiLeaks have made their own documentary, Mediastan because “Goliath is an insufferable bore” the group said. It is unclear if by Goliath they were referring to the Fifth Estate and Hollywood in particular or Western and US foreign policy in general. 

Mediastan describes itself as a geopolitical road movie by a small group of journalists travelling through the least known areas of Central Asia trying to find local news editors to publish state secrets. Central Asia remains one of the less travelled areas of the world and is not exactly famous for its press freedoms. 


But whatever Mediastan’s merits or lack of them, WikiLeaks’ glee at the Fifth Estate’s box office flop, which is being called a victory for Assange by the press, is likely to be a hollow. 

Most critics say the film has many flaws, with only Cumberbatch’s performance coming in for praise. The Fifth Estate is accused as sitting on the fence in the way it deals with its central protagonist. 

“It can’t work out its own attitude towards its central character. The film makers haven’t made their minds up yet whether Assange is a visionary champion of free speech or an autocratic and manipulative asshole with a personality skirting on the autistic edge of the spectrum,” says Geoffrey Macnab of the Independent. 

The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin puts it more humorously. 

"Assange starts the film as a vaguely undead-looking heartthrob, gliding through hackers’ conferences while young female attendees shoot him cow-eyed glances.  By the end, he has been repackaged as a sixth-rate Bond villain, ranting noisily against the West while prodding at his laptop, at which point you are ready for Daniel Craig to arrive, in a freshly pressed tuxedo, and hurl him off the top of a skyscraper,” writes Collin. 

The problem is that the Assange’s story is still incomplete. David and Goliath type films where hardy, altruistic and obsessed journalists battle it out with lying and manipulative politicians or corporations, such as Frost Nixon or The Insider have been made when events have already unfolded, the subject’s careers and reputations are at rest and opinion either for or against is securely established. 

“Biopics of this kind are usually conceived when their subjects' careers and reputations are at rest, and the consensus of liberal opinion securely established. But Assange is still holed up in London's Ecuadorian embassy, and the debate about the sexual charges he faces in Sweden is far from over,” writes Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian. 

As a film which is supposed to be “concerned with the unearthing of hidden truths,” writes Collin, it’s off the mark and “incurious.”  

Collin argues that if it’s a film about the real story of Assange and WikiLeaks then Alex Gibney’s documentary We Steal Secrets offers a more thoughtful approach to Assange as a man full of contradictions who has gone a long way. 

Gibney’s film, says Robey, portrays the WikiLeaks affair as reflective of the growth of the internet and the digital age as having the power to speak the truth and free us and of having  the power to lead us down a dead end and entrap us, a “deadly blessing” which Assange himself is the victim of.

“Gibney’s smartest move is reproducing their web-chats, beat by beat. Words on the screen, their power to free you, and also entrap you – if this isn’t the internet’s deadly blessing, what is?” he says.


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