CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie, Stanley Tucci, Carice Van Houten, Peter Capaldi, Dan Stevens, Alexander Siddig, Jamie Blackley
RUNNING TIME: 128 mins
BASICALLY…: The early days of the notoriety of WikiLeaks and founder Julian Assange (Cumberbatch), as seen through the eyes of collaborator Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Brühl), when the site reveals to the world highly-classified documents from the US Military…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
It’s definitely safe to say that Julian Assange is already not a fan of The Fifth Estate. His depiction in the film, as played by an exceptional Benedict Cumberbatch, is pretty much his worst nightmare: an egocentric, cold-hearted plotter whom other characters do not hesitate to call him a “manipulative a**hole”. None of us, except the real people involved, know if he acts as he does in this dramatization. After all, the movie is based on a couple of books written by two people who fiercely opposed Assange so it is very possible that the viewpoint is entirely one-sided with no arguments in favour of the WikiLeaks founder.
Whatever the right answer might be, The Fifth Estate is still a story of the rise and fall of WikiLeaks and its founder, as told through several points of view – some of whom were made especially for the movie – who saw him either as a godsend or a curse, or sometimes both. The resulting film is a fast-paced thriller that definitely has ambitions to be the be-all-end-all on the subject, but a biased viewpoint and off-the-wall plotting keeps it from overall succeeding.
Cumberbatch as Assange is easily the best aspect of the movie, his wobbly Australian accent proving a minor bump in the road in a performance that takes elements from Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and even the actor’s own Sherlock Holmes. Daniel Brühl, in what is basically the Eduardo Saverin role in this WikiLeaks tale, is downplayed enough to let the more showy role of Julian Assange shine through, but he still does fine in a role at the opposite spectrum of his standout role in last month’s Rush. Shamefully, most of the other actors here are wasted in much smaller parts. David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander and Laura Linney are the biggest small roles that come to mind but everyone else, from Peter Capaldi’s newspaper editor to Anthony Mackie’s White House speaker to even Stanley Tucci as another White House employee (his position isn’t made all that clear), is either reduced to recurring cameos or pointless additions. Honestly, why was Dan Stevens even in this film? All throughout the film he does two things: nothing and bugger all. It will disappoint Downton Abbey fans perhaps a little more than Matthew Crawley’s fate last Christmas.
Having regained creative consciousness after working on the final two-part Twilight film, director Bill Condon tells the story relatively straightforward. Much of the film is dialogue-heavy, retracting the age-old rule of “show don’t tell” when it comes to cinema. It makes some aspects hard to follow at times, and leaves audiences confused regarding certain threads. For example, Linney’s government official – a fictional character for this film – gets into contact with a Libyan family man whose passage from Tripoli to Egypt becomes the focus of a certain amount of scenes. That’s all fine and dandy, but who this man is, what his relationship with the US government is, what he has to do with WikiLeaks if anything and why he is suddenly forced to relocate is never explained clear enough, all through dialogue that the average moviegoers might not entirely understand.
Both Condon and writer Josh Singer have both clearly taken cues from two other recent films about fairly recent real-life events. One, as you might have guessed already, is The Social Network, while the other seems to be Zero Dark Thirty. Nothing wrong with being inspired by two very good films, but The Fifth Estate seems to have taken more than expected from both films, enough to even make up two-halves of the picture. Whenever we focus on Assange and Domscheit-Berg typing away at their computers running the site and reacting to the global impact it is making, as well as examine the relationship between both men who will eventually turn on each other, it’s obviously trying to be David Fincher’s Facebook movie. As the focus suddenly shifts to international events and situations, such as aforementioned Libyan man and a drive-by shooting in Africa, as well as a close look into the manoeuvres made by the American government as led by a female employee, it goes without saying that it wants to imitate Kathryn Bigelow’s Osama bin Laden drama/thriller. This was probably not the exact intention of Condon and Singer, to copy and paste both movies into one of their very own, but these movies are still too much so in the minds of audiences so they can instantly spot the plot beats and add it all up for a movie that just wants to fit in with the cool kids but does so rather awkwardly. It’s like those awful “Seltzerberg” spoof movies – Epic Movie, Meet The Spartans etc – in that it just takes the exact same plot beats from more popular movies and does their own thing with them. Thankfully, a simple cough in The Fifth Estate is 100 times funnier than those dreadful abominations of comedy cinema. But still, you probably get the idea by now.
But thankfully, Condon does establish some interesting directorial choices here, visualised through rather good cinematography. We are treated to multiple shots of an “office” which supposedly represents WikiLeaks, desks lined up in perfect order with contributors sitting behind desks typing away at computers, while in the real world everyone’s just on their laptops in random locations. The only moment when this interesting idea is hit a little too hard on the nose is near the end, when Brühl does something that permanently damages the website inter-spliced with symbolic images of him destroying the office before setting all the furniture on fire. It’s about as subtle as a kick in the genitals.
In another interesting idea, the film closes on a fake interview with Cumberbatch as Assange, inside the Eduadorian London embassy where the real man is living at the moment. During the interview, he acknowledges the idea of “WikiLeaks: The Movie” and distances himself from the idea as it is based on sources he claims are untrue and serve as pure propaganda. What makes this ending particularly noteworthy is how much his comments perfectly reflect the real-life Assange’s tirades against the movie that unfortunately wasn’t named “WikiLeaks: The Movie”. It’s as if it’s a direct message from Condon, Singer and even Cumberbatch toward the white-haired man himself, saying “we hear what you have to say, but this is the movie we want to make. And we have, so there!”
Unfortunately, that’s the only hint we get of The Fifth Estate being from Assange’s point of view only, indicating that there may in fact be another side to the story. Whether it is all true or false, it is still fascinating to see another option in the horizon. For now, though, we’ve seen one side of it all. Your move, Assange.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Fifth Estate is bolstered by a fast pace, intriguing directional choices, and a superb lead performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. However, its viewpoints remain distractingly one-sided and an unhealthy combination of the plots of The Social Network and Zero Dark Thirty draws attention away from an otherwise-decent dramatization of the on-going WikiLeaks saga.