When the upstart online organization WikiLeaks began releasing classified cables, documents and videos in 2010, the world's reaction ranged from jubilation to sheer horror. For those who believe in a transparent government, here, it seemed, was shocking evidence of the dirty work the most powerful countries in the world would do anything to keep secret (this included a video that proved U.S. troops covered up the murder of two Reuters journalists in Iraq). For those charged with fighting the still-nascent War on Terror, it was a damaging act that placed spies and diplomats in mortal danger. Was WikiLeaks leveling the playing field or destabilizing the global balance of power?
It will be years before the impact of WikiLeaks' whistle-blowing activities are fully known, though it is clear from the Edward Snowden/NSA affair that a new era of unfettered truth-telling is upon us. How we got to this place is the focus of Bill Condon's challenging film THE FIFTH ESTATE, which depicts in procedural form how the fiercely intelligent Julian Assange rose from common hacker to one of the most wanted men in the world. Based on two books (INSIDE WIKILEAKS: MY TIME WITH JULIAN ASSANGE AT THE WORLD'S MOST DANGEROUS WEBSITE by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and WIKILEAKS: INSIDE JULIAN ASSANGE'S WAR ON SECRECY by David Leigh and Luke Harding), Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer have pared down the story to its dramatic essentials: this is about two men - Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl) - who were brought together by lofty ideals before being torn apart by a disagreement as to their application. Cumberbatch portrays Assange as a by-any-means-necessary crusader, driven by righteous indignation and strangely empowered by his abusive upbringing in an Australian cult. His brilliance seduces the equally radical Domscheit-Berg, who buys in fully at first. But as Assange begins to evince an apparent disregard for the lives of those he's potentially placing in danger, Domscheit-Berg finds himself desperately trying to stem the further flow of unfiltered information.
THE FIFTH ESTATE reestablishes Condon as a first-rate director of mainstream, adult-themed drama. After guiding THE TWILIGHT SAGA to its highly profitable conclusion, it's a relief to find the filmmaker once again challenging audiences with hard truths via enigmatic protagonists. Assange is every bit as hard to crack as Liam Neeson's Alfred Kinsey or Sir Ian McKellen's James Whale: he is both folk hero and megalomaniacal villain. It's an even-handed portrait, which is probably why Assange has denounced the film: judging from interviews, he seems utterly convinced of his virtuousness.
When I interviewed Condon recently, I was curious to learn how he approached what is essentially an unfinished narrative. We also talked about the film's hand-held visual style (which is loose, but never frantic), the uneasy dynamic shared by his two leads and A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND, Condon's next film which will star McKellen as a ninety-one-year-old Sherlock Holmes.
Mr. Beaks: I've been really intrigued by this film since it was announced. I think the touchstone is ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, in terms of dramatizing a contemporary historical event. But this is a story where we're all still trying to make sense of what it actually means.
Bill Condon: It's interesting. Now that we're on the other side of the reaction from Toronto, which was mixed, there's a resentful attitude to some of it. I love film criticism, so I'm always decoding it, even when it hurts - and it has a lot for this. But I've been trying to figure it out. When you compare it to ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, for example, there had been [the Watergate scandal], then the book was about a year later and the film a year after that. This is an unfinished story, but discreet story: the relationship with Daniel [Domscheit-Berg], which came to a stop. I tried to get the essential part of what's interesting about the story folded into that timeline, so that when other things happen it feels as though you understand why. But I do feel like what's interesting and different about this movie, even from the ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN situation, is that because it's still going on, because there's not just one book that paved the way, I feel as though the sausage-making of the dramatization, which is all about what you choose to include or not include, the fact that "Oh, you've got Daniel Berg's girlfriend, but you're not including the rape charges..." those are some big judgments there. You're getting glimpses of intimate stuff, but not much. All of those decisions that were made, there was an undercurrent of "Do you have the right to do that yet?" Even compared to ZERO DARK THIRTY or THE SOCIAL NETWORK, everyone kind of knows this stuff, so they're analyzing those choices. And because people who are writing about it are journalists, including critics, the sense of investment in what's important or not... that's something that's complicated for people - more complicated, I've found, for people writing about the movie than a smart audience seeing the movie.
Beaks: People are engaging it with their own political leanings.
Condon: It is a Rorschach Test, I think. A little bit.
Beaks: I've noticed that. But the film doesn't really lean politically one way or the other. It's more of a procedural.
Condon: In a way, yes. It's always been a challenging first act because not much happens. These guys were just bringing the servers around. But there was someone who called it an "origin story", and that's a term that makes sense to a certain chunk of the audience. In a way, it's an origin story.
Beaks: But in telling this story, was there a point where, politically, you felt pulled in one way or the other, where you perhaps tried to state a political view more clearly than you should?
Condon: That's interesting. It was a constant give and take, starting from getting involved with the script. That whole process went on for several months, and then actually getting the actors there, and then making sure that we never had a knockout blow. I think that's what it was: there wasn't something where you're like, "Oh, now I get it. He's an asshole. He's evil." Or "It doesn't matter what he did, he's absolutely right." It happens on every movie at a certain point that actors, good actors, know the script better than you do. They've been living with it, and they're asking questions that only they could think to ask. But on this film almost all the actors playing real people had been in touch with those people, including Benedict. So you were constantly having a conversation about moments which could've tipped one way or the other, where it's like, "Are you absolutely sure that happened?" And things got adjusted for that reason. If you couldn't defend it or something was there just for dramatic convenience, as opposed to reflecting an essential truth... you were always making sure. It was a challenge. You don't want to hit a point too heavily because it's something you agree with.
Beaks: Visually, this film feels like a departure for you.
Condon: In a way, I guess. Yes and no, I would say.
Beaks: I thinking primarily of the hand-held approach. It feels like you're trying out a different aesthetic that perhaps fits best for the piece.
Condon: I hear what you're saying. I realized early on that it's almost my first contemporary movie. TWILIGHT exists in a sort of Hollywood...
Beaks: It exists in the Hollywood snow globe.
Condon: (Laughs) Right. SISTER SISTER was a gothic.
Beaks: It was your De Palma movie!
Condon: Exactly, and that's a timeless world, too. In terms of the camera, the hand-held approach, I'd worked with Tobias [A. Schliessler] on DREAMGIRLS, and I was excited to make it all about not blocking for camera and letting Tobias and a group of incredible operators find the frames, follow the actors and let it happen. But there is a heightened design that feels right in line with the other movies I've done. It's not a David Fincher movie; the colors are different. There are these saturated colors. I was trying to set up a world that felt a little hyperreal and a little overly vivid so that when it does introduce those more expressive, unreal things that they felt like they were part of the same fabric. But there is something retro about it. It drove me crazy to read [critics] talk about the wannabe-cool depictions of the internet. It's a period movie, and those devices are completely theatrical. They're very consciously looking back, whether it's the [text screens] that act the way the cards do in silent movies, or where there's a submission platform that's like this idealized newsroom that has elements of HIS GIRL FRIDAY, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and even THE APARTMENT. It drives me crazy when people say "Oh, he's trying to explain the internet to us! He's going down that horrible road!" But that's just me being defensive.
Beaks: (Laughs) I'm glad you brought up the submission platform design, because there is a definite nod to THE APARTMENT there.
Condon: It's the horror of conformity, and yet there's such beauty to it. That's what's so great about movies.
Beaks: As for striking the dynamic between Julian and Daniel, Julian is such an odd bird, which gives Benedict the opportunity to show off quite a bit. But it's Daniel Bruhl's performance that stands out to me. I'm always more interested in the actor who's having to respond to the weird energy of his co-star. It's like Tom Cruise in RAIN MAN. How did you go about striking that dynamic, and making it believable?
Condon: I felt like "I've been here before." It was Brendan with Ian McKellen [in GODS AND MONSTERS], or Laura Linney and Peter Sarsgaard, who were our way into Kinsey. You've got these characters that you're drawn to, but if the lights came up and you had to have dinner with them, you're not so sure you'd want to. But when someone's behavior is in some way transgressive, the person who leads you in... those are the hardest parts to cast. They have to be the equal to that actor and as interesting, but without any of those pyrotechnics. Bruhl does a lot of heavy lifting in this movie and makes it look easy.
Beaks: Directing them, was there a feeling-out period?
Condon: Definitely. It was a long discussion. It's a movie that happened really fast, which I loved. It had to be done quickly because of Benedict's schedule. We didn't have as much rehearsal time, but we had a lot of talk time. And then what happened was there developed a kind of analogous relationship on the set between Benedict and Daniel. Daniel having spent time with Berg, and Benedict having been in contact with [Assange], they would really defend their turf in ways similar to how the characters would've - maybe Benedict more overtly, and Daniel more modestly, with charm and a smile.
Beaks: At the end of this film, we have Julian commenting on the events portrayed and, interestingly, the existence of your movie. It's a great way of acknowledging the open-endedness of the story and underscoring the caginess of Julian. Was that something that was there from the beginning?
Condon: No, that was something I added during the first week of shooting after reading through the script a number of times. Some of that stuff [Assange] was emailing to Benedict. There were so many reasons to do it. I just loved acknowledging the idea. All that ridiculous stuff ZERO DARK THIRTY had to face... it's hopeless. Once you get into parsing every single fact, you'll never win. That was part of it. Also, frankly, it was Daniel's story, but it's Julian's movie. Once you have that magnetic a character, it's hard not to give him the last word in some way.
Beaks: Here comes the obligatory "You directed Sherlock Holmes, and now you're making a Sherlock Holmes movie" question. I love that Sherlock has experienced such a resurgence in popularity, and that we have all of these different iterations. How are you approaching A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND? What do you hope to evoke with your Sherlock story?
Condon: We live in this world where audiences sort of need to know something going in just to get them into the theater. They need familiarity. Sherlock is useful in that way, but he's also useful to explore something different. What's different here is that Sherlock Holmes is ninety-one years old, and is desperate to piece together one thing that's sort of happening in the present. But really he's piecing together a story that he's never really figured out. But he's losing his mental powers. That's the difference to me. Who is Sherlock Holmes if he's not the smartest man in the world? What's left? What is the other part? It's playing with everything we know about Sherlock Holmes to explore mortality and what happens to us as we get closer to that moment. I'm excited by it. Jeffrey Hatcher wrote a beautiful script.
Bill Condon directing Sir Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes? That's easily one of my most anticipated films of 2014. In the meantime, you should definitely check out THE FIFTH ESTATE, which hits theaters this Friday, October 18th.