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Co-produced by DreamWorks Pictures and Participant Media, The Fifth Estate premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, and was released in theaters by Touchstone Pictures in the United States on October 18, 2013, with international distribution divided among Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, and independent arrangements by Mister Smith Entertainment. The film performed poorly at the box office and garnered mixed critical reaction, receiving criticism for its screenplay and direction; however, praise was given on the acting, particularly Cumberbatch's performance.
The story opens in 2010, with the release of the Afghan War Logs. It then flashes back to 2007, where journalist Daniel Domscheit-Berg meets Australian computer hacker Julian Assange for the first time, at the Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin. Daniel's interest in online activism has led him to Assange, with whom he has corresponded by email. They begin working together onWikiLeaks, a website devoted to releasing information being withheld from the public while retaining anonymity for its sources. Their first major target is a private Swiss bank, Julius Baer, whose Cayman Islands branch has been engaged in illegal activities. Despite Baer's filing of a lawsuit and obtaining an injunction, the judge dissolves the injunction, allowing Julian and Daniel to reclaim the domain name. As their confidence increases, the two push forward in publishing information over the next three years, including secrets on Scientology, revealing Sarah Palin's email account, and the membership list of the British National Party.
At first Daniel enjoys changing the world, viewing WikiLeaks as a noble enterprise and Assange as a mentor. However, the relationship between the two becomes strained over time. Daniel loses his job and problems arise in his relationship, particularly concerning the BNP membership leak, which also revealed the addresses of the people involved, and caused several to lose their jobs. Assange openly mocks Daniel's concerns about these issues, implying his own life has been more troubling. Assange's abrasive manner and actions, such as abandoning Daniel at his parents' house after having accepted their dinner invitation, only deepen the strain further. Interspersed throughout the film are flashbacks hinting at Assange's troubled childhood and involvement in a suspicious cult, and that Assange's obsession with WikiLeaks has more to do with childhood trauma than wanting to improve the world. Daniel begins to fear that Assange may be closer to a con-man than a mentor. He also notices that Assange constantly gives different stories about why his hair is white. Assange at first tells Daniel that WikiLeaks has hundreds of workers, but Daniel later finds out that Daniel and Assange are the only members. Most importantly to Daniel, Assange frequently claims that protecting sources is the website's number one goal. However, Daniel begins to suspect that Assange only cares about protecting sources so people will come forward and that Assange does not actually care who gets hurt by the website, though Assange claims that the harm the website may cause is outweighed by good the leaks create. Daniel's girlfriend tells him that she believes in his cause, but that it's his job to prevent Assange from going too far.
The tensions come to a head when Bradley Manning leaks hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks, including a video of an airstrike in Baghdad, the Afghan and Iraq War Logs, and 250,000 US Diplomatic Cables. Assange wants to leak the documents immediately, but Daniel insists that they review the documents first. Later, several major newspapers agree to cooperate with WikiLeaks in releasing the documents while spinning WikiLeaks positively. However, both Daniel and the newspapers require the names in the documents be redacted both to protect sources and to assist in the media spin, to which Assange reluctantly agrees. Daniel realizes that Assange has no intention of following through on this promise and is grooming a right-hand man to replace Daniel. The newspapers release the redacted documents. The resulting media and public uproar forces informants to flee from their countries of residence and many U.S. diplomats to resign. Before Assange can go further, however, Daniel and the other members of the original WikiLeaks team delete the site and block Assange's access to the server.
Daniel later talks with a reporter from The Guardian, and the two fear that giving Assange such a large platform was a mistake. The reporter tells Daniel that while Assange may be untrustworthy, he had done a good thing by uncovering secret dealing in the government and business world and attempting to protect sources. Daniel also reveals the real reason for Assange's hair colour--that it had been a custom of the cult he had been part of in Australia--and reports that he once accidentally discovered Assange dyeing it that colour.
As the film ends, it is revealed that WikiLeaks is continuing to leak information (with Assange implied to have either regained the site or rebuilt it), and the Manning documents were released with no redactions. Daniel has written a book on his involvement with the organization on which this film was based, and Assange has threatened to sue in retaliation. Assange is shown to be living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid arrest on an outstanding warrant for alleged sex crimes. In an interview, he denounces the two upcoming WikiLeaks films, stating that they will be factually inaccurate (having been partly based on Daniel's book). He informs the viewer that individuals are what the government is afraid of and claims that hiring Daniel was the one mistake he made.
- Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange
- Daniel Brühl as Daniel Domscheit-Berg
- Anthony Mackie as Sam Coulson
- David Thewlis as Nick Davies
- Moritz Bleibtreu as Marcus
- Alicia Vikander as Anke Domscheit-Berg
- Stanley Tucci as James Boswell
- Laura Linney as Sarah Shaw
- Carice van Houten as Birgitta Jónsdóttir
- Peter Capaldi as Alan Rusbridger
- Dan Stevens as Ian Katz
- Alexander Beyer as Marcel Rosenbach
- Alexander Siddig as Dr. Tarek Haliseh
- Nigel Whitmey as General Thomason
- Philip Bretherton as Bill Keller