Secrets and lies
Governments keeping secrets and telling lies at heart of two new dramas
T he Fifth Estate is being promoted as a dramatic portrait of Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks phenomenon but also as a kind of low-key political thriller. It delivers on both counts, but not to any really impressive or revealing extent.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s edgily cautious impersonation of Assange is striking in appearance and mannerism, but the overall portrayal is sketchy at best. In a way, the film’s true central character is Daniel Domscheit-Berg, whose book about his loose-limbed partnership with Assange in WikiLeaks is one of the sources for the film’s screenplay. He’s played here by Daniel Brühl (who is also excellent as a very different kind of character in this year’s Rush), and much of what is best in the film is mostly a matter of scenes in which Cumberbatch and Brühl are both involved.
There’s an excellent supporting cast on hand as well—David Thewlis and Peter Capaldi as journalists involved in publishing the leaks, and Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney as government figures in charge of national-security matters. Alicia Vikander plays Domscheit-Berg’s girlfriend and comrade in a part of the movie that brings the political and the personal into charged contact. Linney’s performance, in a small but well-written part, is probably the best of the lot.
Director Bill Condon and screenwriter/adapter Josh Singer have framed their portrait in the trappings of respectable docudrama, but they’re hard-pressed to come up with anything in the way of fresh revelations. That is, at least in part, a byproduct of dealing with ongoing current events and legal and political dramas that remain unresolved at best, and shrouded in disinformation and secrecy at worst.
There’s a fleeting sense of urgency and commitment in the sequences where Assange and Domscheit-Berg are making “Courage is contagious” their watchword. But in the end, there’s nothing left to do but acknowledge all the fraught loose ends—which The Fifth Estate accomplishes via a fictional “interview” in which Cumberbatch/Assange addresses the camera directly and makes pronouncements which are provocative, evasive and inconclusive.
Government secrets are at the heart of another release to make it to Chico this week. Closed Circuit takes on surveillance systems, whistleblowers, and the quagmire of “national security” issues from another angle. The setting is Great Britain, WikiLeaks revelations are not an issue, and the secrets uncovered will remain hidden from the public. Instead, judicial tyranny and the malfeasance of spy agencies have the foreground, and the plight of potential whistleblowers is the central drama.
Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall play defense lawyers who uncover an elaborate judicial sham in a terrorist bombing case to which they’ve been assigned. Compromised by shared personal secrets, and seriously menaced by government officials operating behind a veil of secrecy, the two of them must take flight and bargain for their own survival via the few remnants of legal and moral redress left to them.
The spirit of social protest, which seems cautious but not unhopeful in The Fifth Estate, looks to be nearly extinct in Closed Circuit.