The Fifth Estate, about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s rapid rise to prominence, does not portray its subject as either hero or villain. As played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Assange is socially maladjusted, but not in ways that endear him to fellow hackers; he’s vainglorious but not particularly charismatic, less budding cult leader than disgruntled cult member. And what he is definitely not is wanted for questioning on sexual-assault allegations in Sweden.
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Since late 2010, the formerly globetrotting Assange has been stuck in the U.K. fighting an arrest and extradition warrant to Sweden to answer allegations of sexual assault against two former WikiLeaks supporters, both of whom have provided depositions. Assange denies any wrongdoing and claims that the Swedish warrant is a conspiratorial gambit to extradite him to the U.S. This warrant is why Assange has been holed up for the past year and a half in London in the Ecuadorean embassy, where he has political asylum. It’s what has transformed a plausibly dashing international man of mystery into the waxen satellite link he is today.
But you would never know this from The Fifth Estate, which tacks a few lines about the rape allegations at the very end, which is sort of like watching Behind the Candelabra only to find out in a postscript that Liberace had been playing concerts and romancing Scott Thorson under house arrest in Las Vegas most of the time.
Why does an otherwise thorough and decently researched film leave out such a huge piece in the Assange puzzle? Every biopic — even one whose events are as compressed in time as The Fifth Estate’s — has to streamline, elide, leave stuff out. Assange became a worldwide icon because of WikiLeaks’ release of U.S. military war logs in Afghanistan and Iraq, thousands of State Department cables, and the Collateral Murder video, with its shocking footage of a U.S. air strike in Baghdad that killed several Iraqi civilians and two Reuters correspondents. The sexual-assault case — and to be sure, Assange has not yet been charged with a crime, much less convicted of one — complicated our understanding of him. But it wasn’t why we were looking in the first place.
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Still, like so many biopics, The Fifth Estate is eager to map a facile psychology onto Assange’s actions, tracing his free-press zealotry and persecution complex back to the shame and pain of a traumatic childhood. It even forces a character to say, “Only a man so obsessed with his own secrets could come up with a way to reveal everyone else’s.” Accusations of sexual assault — and the grim portrait of Assange’s sexual modus operandi as it emerges in those stomach-turning depositions — would appear to be relevant to the character’s psychological profile (and certainly his ability to run WikiLeaks). Yet despite its taste for Freudian irony, the movie asexualizes Assange. A few times we see women batting their eyelashes at him, but he never reciprocates; he’s forever sprinting to the airport or back to work. The movie even engineers a fake-out sex scene, in which Assange begins breathlessly tearing off a woman’s clothes — not for the usual reasons, it turns out, but rather to fashion a disguise for himself.
Precisely because The Fifth Estate is not a hagiography — its takeaway is of a difficult, deeply flawed and damaged person who did good things and may continue to — it’s bizarre that the movie scrubs out the legal case that’s cast a shadow over him nearly as long as the world has known his name. In October 2010, Assange fled an interview with CNN’s Atika Shubert because she wanted to ask a perfectly reasonable question about how the sexual-assault allegations were affecting the work of WikiLeaks. “I will have to walk,” he said moments before removing his mike, “if you’re going to contaminate this extremely serious interview with questions about my personal life.” The Fifth Estate obliges Assange on this point, but the result is a film that’s not merely clean but sterile, sanitized, redacted — exactly the kind of history-making that WikiLeaks set out to dismantle.