Review: The Fifth Estate
PLOT: The story of Wiki-Leaks, from it's growth under founder/editor-in-chief Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl) to it's eventual publication of a massive amount of classified data leaked by soldier Bradley Manning.
REVIEW: The highest praise I can give Bill Condon's THE FIFTH ESTATE is that it takes an exceedingly complicated story- the Wiki-Leaks saga- and boils it down into a compact two hour movie that's consistently entertaining and easy-to-follow. However, buzz that it might be Oscar-worthy seems like a bit of a stretch compared to some of the truly exceptional films that are playing TIFF this year. In comparison, THE FIFTH ESTATE can't help but fall a little short.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about THE FIFTH ESTATE is that by the time the end credits roll, it's main character, Julian Assange, is as much of an enigma as he was when the film started. This is not for lack of trying, as Benedict Cumberbatch bears an uncanny likeness to the man, and brilliantly captures the mannerisms he's displayed in interviews. Assange's past and personality is only revealed in sparingly parcelled out fragments. There's nothing much on the sexual-assault charges, or even his past, although his youth as a member of the Australian cult The Family is briefly explained. It feels like Condon's movie has made a misstep by making Domscheit-Berg the main character, as he's so naive compared to Assange, he can't help but feel like a bit of a waste of the film's focus. Cumberbatch is so good in the flamboyant part that Bruhl, in a far more conventional part, comes off as bland.
As it is, THE FIFTH ESTATE is very much a conventional thriller, although with the facts of the case being what they are, it can't help but be incredibly compelling. The movie takes a mostly unbiased approach, acknowledging both the site's worthiness and recklessness, with their search for truth often having some collateral damage of it's own, with that being emphasized by a subplot featuring Alexander Siddig as a U.S asset who risks exposure due to their exposé.
Condon keeps the film moving at a relentless, techno-thriller pace, but again, he manages to prevent it from ever being too confusing or overwhelming. Condon's only real missteps here are stylistic, with too many scenes that try to make typing in chat-rooms exciting cinematically, with the results seeming like something left over from a nineties hacker thriller like HACKERS or THE NET. Superimposing typed messages on faces, and other tricks can't help but feel tacky. The same goes for Condon's frequent use of heavy-handed visual motifs, like the early days of Wiki-Leaks being depicted as an office full of hundreds of Assange's. These cutaways may be interesting visually, but again, feel more than a little contrived and unnecessary (I think less is more visually in movies like this).
Story-wise though, it's mighty gripping, especially given the fact that it's all true. As someone who trained as a journalist back in the first half of the aughts, and watched it utterly transform in just a few years into an all-new kind of industry, it raises a lot of interesting questions about the ethical responsibilities of these new citizen journalists.
I'm still convinced that there's a great straight-ahead Julian Assange biopic to be made, as he's one of the more fascinating and enigmatic figures of the last couple of years. However, if you want to get a good, entertaining rundown of Wiki-Leaks and the lasting effect it's had on the world (and Assange is still at it), THE FIFTH ESTATE is intriguing and refreshingly user-friendly. It's not definitive, nor is it THE SOCIAL NETWORK for Wiki-Leaks, but it's good in it's own right.
|Extra Tidbit:||Note: This review originally ran as part of JoBlo.com's TIFF 2013 coverage.|