Review – The Fifth Estate

If ever there was a film that tried to have its cake and eat it, it’s this Bill Condon-directed thriller that attempts to pull the curtain back on WikiLeaks and its enigmatic founder Julian Assange.

The Fifth Estate The Fifth EstateIn promoting The Fifth Estate, two separate posters have been produced featuring a portrait of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Assange, one with the word ‘hero’ on it and on the other the word ‘traitor’ – a piece of marketing that inadvertently speaks to the film’s central problem.

Most of us have an opinion on how good or bad for the world WikiLeaks has been, but in trying so earnestly to appear fair and balanced, Condon has ended up sucking the dramatic life out of the film.

Condon presumably had ambitions for this to be All The President’s Men for the internet age, but The Fifth Estate actually feels like a digital cousin of The Social Network in its depiction of a bromance being poisoned by the monster that brought them together.

Traitors or heroes? You decide in The Fifth Estate

Traitors or heroes? You decide in The Fifth Estate

The Fifth Estate itself is the moniker given to the rise of hacktivism, a more radical form of traditional journalism (the fourth estate), and the film underlines this by charting the history of news communication in the title sequence, from the invention of writing to the birth of the net. The fourth and fifth estates are uneasy bedfellows, however, and the movie is at its best when laying bare the ethical differences between Assange and the more established news organisations over protecting privacy.

One of the visual devices used by director Bill Condon to get across the tech stuff in The Fifth Estate

One of the visual devices used by director Bill Condon to get across the tech stuff in The Fifth Estate

The film centres on the unprecedented coalition The Guardian, Germany’s Der Spiegel and The New York Times formed with WikiLeaks in 2010 to publish the biggest leak of information in history. It was a mammoth story that sent shock waves throughout the world, not least of which in America where the thousands of classified documents had originated.

While the papers followed traditional means of journalism by redacting names in order to protect their identity, Assange pushed ahead with publishing the documents in their unexpurgated form and in so doing plunged the final nail in the coffin of his partnership with Daniel Domscheit-Berg, on whose book Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website the film is partly based.

Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Icelandic MP/activist Birgitta Jónsdóttir (Carice van Houten), Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) and hacker Marcus (Moritz Bleibtreu) consider what to order online in The Fifth Estate

Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Icelandic MP/activist Birgitta Jónsdóttir (Carice van Houten), Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) and hacker Marcus (Moritz Bleibtreu) consider what to order online in The Fifth Estate

Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer flash back to Domscheit-Berg’s first encounter with Assange, their burgeoning friendship and numerous successes in bringing corporations to heel. But as WikiLeaks grows more influential, their professional relationship and personal kinship slowly erodes over just how far they should go in the name of transparency.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives an uncanny portrayal of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate

Benedict Cumberbatch gives an uncanny portrayal of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate

There’s a fascinating story to be told here of how the beauty of genius can turn ugly when tainted by hubris and paranoia, but The Fifth Estate is too afraid to get off the fence to really give the subject the treatment it deserves. Assange has very publicly denounced the film as Hollywood propaganda (he similarly tore into Alex Gibney’s acclaimed documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story Of WikiLeaks), although he’d be better served criticising its narrative failings.

Senior US Government officers Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney) and James Boswell (Stanley Tucci) discuss the fallout of the WikiLeaks leaks in The Fifth Estate

Senior US Government officers Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney) and James Boswell (Stanley Tucci) discuss the fallout of the WikiLeaks leaks in The Fifth Estate

The film has its moments, such as when Domscheit-Berg states that WikiLeaks doesn’t edit because “editing is bias”, before Assange slaps the headline ‘Collateral Murder’ over video footage it’s received of American forces gunning down unarmed civilians in Iraq. However, the film essentially hangs itself by its own petard by following genre conventions and using serious dramatic licence to illustrate a story supposedly about the ‘truth’.

In trying so earnestly to appear fair and balanced, Condon has ended up sucking the dramatic life out of The Fifth Estate.

In trying so earnestly to appear fair and balanced, Condon has ended up sucking the dramatic life out of The Fifth Estate.

Tech-movies have often struggled to avoid looking a bit naff when trying to get across the ‘science bit’ and this doesn’t fare any better. Condon falls back on using flashy camerawork and gimmicky effects to explain what Assange and co are up to, but it ends up getting in the way and actually muddies the narrative.

The Fifth Estate‘s biggest strength is its superb cast, led by Cumberbatch’s uncanny portrayal of Assange. It’s doubtful anyone knows the real Julian Assange, but Cumberbatch certainly gets the mannerisms spot on, whether it’s the Australian accent or twitchy body language, and seems to capture that unique freedom fighter charisma he exudes.

Daniel Brühl, so good as Formula 1 driver Nikki Lauder in Rush, is impressive as Domscheit-Berg; an insider who slowly turns into an outsider as he and Assange become more estranged. Meanwhile, David Thewlis is as reliable as ever as Guardian reporter Nick Davies, although he seems to be basing his portrayal on movieland journalists instead of real life ones.

Such performances deserve a better film than this. In time, a definitive account of this most 21st Century of tales will undoubtedly emerge; for now we’ll have to make do with this tepid and underwhelming slide show.

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22 comments

  1. beautifulorange · October 16, 2013

    Nice write up. There’s such a big trend towards making films about real people in the last few years – but I often struggle with them – however good the film, it’s still a work of fiction. Yet people base their opinions on the characters and situations as if they’re fact. As you say, this is even more of a problem when depicting the life of someone who has kept so private. Oh yeah, and the tech stuff!

    • Three Rows Back · October 16, 2013

      Yeah, it does seem to be in vogue at the moment; the same as biographies being so popular on the bookshelves I guess. We’re all nosy and want to see how the other half live, although I don’t think any film can get to the bottom of who Assange really is.

  2. Joseph@thecinemamonster · October 16, 2013

    This film garners recommended viewing from me just because of the performances, too good to pass up. Terrific review!

    • Three Rows Back · October 16, 2013

      Thanks very much! Cumberbatch especially is great; as for the film itself…

  3. Nick Powell · October 16, 2013

    I’ll see this for the performances, but definitely not running to the theaters for it.

  4. cindybruchman · October 16, 2013

    Fantastic review. I will watch it with a grain of salt because I’m too enthralled with the cast to miss it.

    • Three Rows Back · October 16, 2013

      Cheers Cindy. The cast is good but it’s the only reason to watch it .

  5. ckckred · October 17, 2013

    Nice review. That’s disappointing to hear, I’m a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch and was hoping this would be one of the year’s best. Might wait for it to hit DVD before seeing it.

    • Three Rows Back · October 17, 2013

      Thanks a lot. You aren’t missing anything by not watching this at the cinema.

  6. Anna (Film Grimoire) · October 17, 2013

    Films like this force me to consider whether I enjoy them because of the cast/performances, or because of the content. I feel like my perceptions of anything with Benedict Cumberbatch in it will inevitably be a result of my own biased adoration of him. This film will probably be given a lot of additional attention because Assange himself has made public his disapproval of it. Which makes me wonder, where does the appreciation of the film actually come from: the hype, the actors, or the actual quality? Intriguing stuff!

    • Three Rows Back · October 17, 2013

      Great question, one I would recommend you put out there to other bloggers. Cream generally rises to the top. Sometimes it takes a few years but eventually a quality film will be recognised long after others fed on hype have fallen by the wayside. I love Cumberbatch too, but he’s let down here by a film that can’t match his performance.

  7. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · October 17, 2013

    Great review Mark. I don’t really have much desire to see this, at least not in cinemas. I just think it was too soon to make this film. The whole thing is still going on and there is no doubt more to come. Seems like they wanted to strike whilst the iron’s hot.

    • Three Rows Back · October 17, 2013

      Cheers Chris. Yeah, they’ve tried to cover an issue that’s still brewing, as such it feels half baked. There’s no need to see this on the big screen, home viewing will suffice.

  8. Popcorn Nights · October 17, 2013

    Nice review – a shame to hear that the film doesn’t do the quality of the performances justice. I was just thinking the same as Chris above when I saw his comment – the rush to get this film out is a shame, as it feels like (in real life at least) this story is far from complete.

    • Three Rows Back · October 17, 2013

      It’s such an important subject for our times and one deserving of a more proving movie than this. Shame really. Thanks for the feedback.

  9. Natalie Stendall · October 17, 2013

    Completely agree with you that the performances deserved a more probing script. I liked the way in which the film drew attention to its own biases during the final scene – a clever way of showing how fact and fiction can become blurred in the media. Great review.

    • Three Rows Back · October 17, 2013

      Thanks a lot! Yeah, I did like that epilogue, didn’t want to mention it in the review though. I think ‘probing’ is definitely the right word.

      • Natalie Stendall · October 17, 2013

        I couldn’t resist mentioning it in my write up! Thought it brought all the themes of the movie full circle. Just wish there had been a little more depth in parts of the film.

  10. jjames36 · October 18, 2013

    Seeing this one later today. While you haven’t exactly inspired confidence, you also haven’t squashed it entirely, so … We’ll see. 😉

    • Three Rows Back · October 18, 2013

      Let me know what you think buddy!

      • jjames36 · October 19, 2013

        I wrote a complete review earlier, so I won’t get too in depth here. I will say I pretty much agree with you. It was okay, featured some great performances, as well as some awkward directorial choices (stop with the office motif already). It was watchable, but watchable and great are not synonyms. 😉

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