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Review: The Fifth Estate (2013)

The Fifth Estate (2013)

Directed by: Bill Condon

Premise: A dramatization of the relationship between WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and computer hacker Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl).

What Works: There have been a lot of efforts to tell cinematic stories based upon digital technology but for every success like The Social Network there are many more failures like Paranoia and Jobs. The Fifth Estate is one of the exceptions and the picture generally works. The story juxtaposes elements of an investigative story like All the President’s Men with an espionage thriller such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy but it’s made with the urgency of action pictures like The Bourne Ultimatum. This film is assembled with a lot of energy and it is edited at a rapid pace. One of the causes for failure of movies about people and technology is an inability to convey the impact of technology on people’s lives but the filmmakers of The Fifth Estate do a good job with this. They find creative ways of visualizing the architecture of the WikiLeaks website, turning what would otherwise be footage of a man pressing buttons on a laptop into compelling images that capture the gravitas and communicate the significance of the action. The Fifth Estate is at its best at the beginning as Julian Assange and Daniel Berg construct the organization and build WikiLeaks’ name while exposing corruption and other scandals. After a troubled middle section the film picks up again when the WikiLeaks crew gets their hands on classified government documents that reveal secrets of war and diplomacy. This section of the film is the most engaging in part because it connects the leak of sensitive information with real world consequences but it also allows the filmmakers to entertain the moral and ethical questions that WikiLeaks embodies. As portrayed in the film, Julian Assange believes that more information and greater transparency is inherently good but Daniel Berg and others recognize greater complexity to the issue. That is one of the aspects of this film that is most impressive. It’s known that Julian Assange protested this film and it is little wonder why. But The Fifth Estate isn’t a total hatchet job on Assange either. Ulitmately, this film is really the story of Daniel Berg, following the trajectory of his involvement and later disillusionment and it tells that story very well.

What Doesn’t: The Fifth Estate is far from perfect. One of the annoying clichés of nearly every movie that deals with computer technology is an obnoxious electronic music score. The music of The Fifth Estate pounds on the viewer and overstates the obvious, as if we hadn’t noticed that the story was about digital technology. Thankfully, the filmmakers employ this sound more so in the first half and it fades away as the film proceeds. The story of The Fifth Estate sags in the middle. After the characters establish the website, the film loses its focus before picking up again when dramatizing the leak of classified documents from the United States government. The goal of this middle section is to build the characters and give Benedict Cumberbatch an opportunity to chew the scenery. Cumberbatch is good in the role but the script mishandles the characterization. Instead of providing subtle moments and choices that reveal the character, Cumberbatch as Assange tends to speak in overlong monologues that don’t really reveal anything. That’s indicative of a broader issue here. Viewers won’t necessarily come away from The Fifth Estate with a much better understanding of Julian Assange, in part because Daniel Berg is the real lead of the story. But the film’s lack of insight into Assange becomes especially problematic in the ending. The Fifth Estate concludes with a protracted coda sequence acknowledging that Julian Assange was accused of sexual assault. These charges have not yet been proven in a court of law because Assange has evaded extradition. The filmmakers are stuck in a quagmire because there is no satisfactory way to deal with this topic. If they had ignored it completely that would be a sin of omission but the coda comes across as a compromise, acknowledging yet oversimplifying a complex issue. For a fuller character study of Julian Assange, viewers should seek out Alex Gibney’s documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.

DVD extras: Featurettes, trailers.

Bottom Line: The Fifth Estate was largely ignored by audiences and unfairly dismissed by critics upon its release. The movie aims to be All the President’s Men for the internet age. It isn’t quite at that level and it ignores some important aspects of the WikiLeaks narrative but it does tell a compelling and important story.

Episode: #483 (March 23, 2014)