Julian Assange is not a government. The founder of Wikileaks may spend his days and nights in a small room in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, but the government transparency activist doesn’t practice what he preaches when it comes to secrecy—his personal demeanor is the opposite of revealing. So how do you make a movie about a man who is both figurehead and cipher? That’s the challenge director Bill Condon faced in directing The Fifth Estate, the first non-documentary film about Assange and Wikileaks.
Condon—whose long, diverse career has seen him direct musicals like Dreamgirls, a Twilight movie, and Gods and Monsters—says dramatizing the life of a personally private man who sets a high bar for public transparency presented particular challenges. “He’s someone who is quite wary of personal exploration,” the director said, describing the process of dramatizing his complex story as “trying to find out as much as possible and make some informed leaps.”
“Ultimately, in drama, you are turning it into something that’s about character, and you're trying to sort of get to the essence of people. So ultimately, that becomes a judgment you’re making, and there are moments when you imagine things that haven’t been documented, little private moments. The best things in movies are the moments when it’s a person alone and what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling.”
In the trailer for the film, Assange, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, tells an audience that “one moral man, one whistleblower” would be capable of taking down the most powerful regime. Assange may believe in such an individual, but the essence Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer appear to have landed on is far less ideologically pure. In the tradition of whistleblower film—from All the Presidents Men and Serpico to The Insider and Michael Clayton—the moral certainty to reveal has always been central to both plot and the heroism of the central characters. Assange, however, is more complex and polarizing, his dedication to transparency troubled by his own egoism and personal indiscretions—he’s more of an antihero than anything else.
But this is not only recent history, but also a story that, beyond the dramatic culmination of The Fifth Estate, is still being played out. More could still be revealed.