TORONTO – Introducing “The Fifth Estate,” the opening-night movie of September’s Toronto International Film Festival, director Bill Condon explained why he tackled the story of anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange.
After directing the two-part finale to the blockbuster “Twilight” series, Condon said he wanted a change of pace: a political film that sparks discussions without telling audiences what to think.
“Too often political movies tend to be narrowly ideological,” he said. “They have a point of view. In this story even I didn’t know where I came down on everything, because it is so complex.”
Condon, who is also an Oscar-winning screenwriter (for 1998’s “Gods and Monsters”), focuses on the events leading up to WikiLeaks’ massive 2010 dump of U.S. classified documents, the largest leak of official secrets in American history.
“The Fifth Estate” explores the digital-age tension between privacy and transparency, a debate that hit home during the production. The film was pre-emptively panned by Assange, who said it was a “propaganda attack” against him. His negative review came after he allegedly acquired a leaked copy of the screenplay.
Though he knew a project with this subject matter would not inspire fans to hold “Twilight”-style vigils awaiting opening day, Condon said in an interview that he wanted to pay homage to some of his favorite fact-based thrillers.
Condon calls “The Insider,” Michael Mann’s Big Tobacco drama, “a movie I was crazy about. ‘All the President’s Men,’ my God that holds up well.” His desire to try something similar became more focused watching the Helen Mirren film “The Queen” some years ago. “That was something about the political process that was non-ideological, a very balanced portrait of a complicated series of events.” When he read Josh Singer’s WikiLeaks script, Condon recognized a deep, topical story “in the great tradition of journalistic thrillers.”
With rising star Benedict Cumberbatch playing the “theatrical and compelling” Assange, the film has ample character drama as well.
“Do I think I understand him? I don’t know. That’s the thing that makes him an interesting character. He’s incredibly elusive. Just when you think you’ve pinned him down there’s some other thing you read or hear about and that turns it again. He’s incredibly complicated. Yes, he’s a narcissist. Who else would do this? But the qualities that make him able to change the world are what make him probably not the person you’d want your daughter to marry.”
“The Fifth Estate” traces Assange’s anti-authoritarian streak to his childhood. He grew up with an abusive stepfather in a cult-like community in rural Australia. As the son of a detective, Condon said he felt “great sympathy” for the young Assange’s plight.
“When I grew up, the simplest question would feel like, ‘Oh my God, you caught me !’ I occasionally come across types like that and still feel that little twinge of fear.”
“In general, activists and whistleblowers have a sense of being at a remove from the power structure. And I sympathize with that,” Condon said. Somebody who views the world in such David and Goliath terms “is almost by definition someone who is alienated and an outsider. Who in some way felt at a very early age unprotected. Therefore you have this distrust of power, and that’s what fuels everything. That combines in a darker way into real paranoia. Which of those was dominant at certain times helps to explain where [Assange] goes right and where he goes wrong.”