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On movies: 'The Fifth Estate'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: "The Fifth Estate" begins with Egyptian hieroglyphics and breathlessly careens through the history of the written word -- there's calligraphy! there's the printing press! -- before culminating in the internet, the cyber revolution, Julian Assange and the invention of WikiLeaks.

The message is obvious: Knowledge is power, and as more people have knowledge, the more power they will have, especially the power to challenge entrenched and opaque governments. A remarkable montage of scenes of global protest dramatically underscores this point.

But, as the film spills out, ever at a breakneck pace, the visionary at its center -- Assange (played by a spellbinding Benedict Cumberbatch) -- looks more and more like a megalomaniac, reminding us of another axiom: Power corrupts. As WikiLeaks gets bigger, Assange becomes an absolutist who brooks no questioning from others and, worse, doesn't care about the potentially lethal consequences of his actions.

Structured like a relentless, fast-paced thriller, "The Fifth Estate" never slows down and never completely decides what it wants to be. Consequently it veers -- sometimes wildly -- between two approaches.

At times, it comes across as a biopic of a charismatic hacker (as seen through the eyes of his colorless and increasingly disillusioned accomplice-in-chief Daniel Berg played by Daniel Bruehl). There are vivid scenes of the Berlin counterculture and of computer geeks as well as smaller moments like Julian and Daniel criss-crossing the continent to set up servers.

At other times, the film comes across as a battle of ideas. After then-Sgt. Bradley Manning dumped thousands and thousands of classified documents, Assange decides to partner with the Guardian in London, the New York Times and the German Der Spiegel in publishing them. The clash between old and new journalism is sharpest here as the traditional journalists demand redaction of the names of confidential sources or anyone whose life may be endangered by publication. Assange counters that editing by its nature introduces bias.

(If you look quickly, one of the Guardian editors may look a little familiar; it's a very dark-haired Dan Stevens -- the late Matthew Crawley of "Downton Abbey -- in a very small part. Another editor is the new Dr. Who, Peter Capaldi.)

And even the issue of transparency is examined briefly (and hurriedly) in scenes with the brisk Laura Linney and the laconic Stanley Tucci as mid-level diplomats at the U.S. State Department. Shouldn't diplomats be able to communicate privately and frankly even if they sound like silly 12-year-olds sometimes? Shouldn't their confidential sources be protected -- just as WikiLeaks seeks to protect its whistleblowers?

By the end, in another whiplash move, perhaps just to keep things off balance, the character Assange assails the credibility of the movie because it is based on two negative books. (The real-life Assange has also criticized the movie.)

That's perhaps as it should be. Just as in real life, the movie doesn't resolve all the contradictions, either in Assange or the issues the film raises. The only certainty? The fifth estate -- the internet, citizen journalism, social media, WikiLeaks -- has supplanted the fourth estate, or the press, just as the computer keyboard has replaced the pen.

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