Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Carice van Houten, with Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney
Written By: Josh Singer
Directed By: Bill Condon
Julian Assange, founder of the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks which specializes in declassifying secret information, is one of the most controversial and enigmatic figures to emerge in recent years. The Fifth Estate chronicles Assange’s launching of a little upstart website which would eventually lead to the biggest leak of classified information in U.S. history.
Attempting to condense years of information, conflict, and pivotal events into a 2-hour film, all the while striving for character development, isn’t easy to pull off. The Fifth Estate doesn’t quite rise to its ambitions and as a result is a complex, often confusing film which expects its audience to know the basic details of this story in lieu of delivering exposition. As a result, The Fifth Estate isn’t completely accessible and your enjoyment of the film will be highly dependent on your knowledge of and investment in this subject matter.
The film is based on two books, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, both of which the real Assange has claimed to be discreditable sources. The author of the former book, Daniel Berg, serves as the main character in this film with most of the story told from his point of view.
A large portion of the film focuses on the relationship between Berg (Daniel Bruhl) and Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), depicting their initial partnership over a common interest of exposing the corruptions of power and their eventual falling out after Assange takes things too far. Considering that screenwriter Josh Singer (The West Wing) adapted the source material from the scorned Berg, it’s entirely possible that this is a biased account of events. Having said that, Assange isn’t completely vilified here. Yes, he’s portrayed as a megalomaniac and possibly somewhat schizophrenic, but the film does attempt to explain his mindset. We aren’t asked to sympathize with Assange and his radical views, but at the very least to remember that he is a human being, something which we often forget about people of infamy. A backstory even reveals Assange’s peculiar white mane, a result of being brought up in a cult where he was forced to dye his hair, a custom which he has kept to this day.
Leads Cumberbatch and Bruhl are both good, not great. Cumberbatch is the standout having the more weighty role but at times it feels like he’s doing a caricature of Assange, trying too hard to ape his voice inflection and mannerisms without creating a fully developed character. With so much superior competition this year, I don’t foresee Oscar nominations for either the leading men or the movie itself.
The film is very talky and most certainly a drama/biopic but director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Kinsey) shoots this thing like he’s making an installment in the Bourne franchise. In order to spruce up what is essentially extensive scenes of people communicating via computers and typing, Condon films the “action” as if this were a spy thriller. He utilizes shaky camera movements and an intense musical score to make it seem as though what we’re watching is more exciting than it actually is.
The story gets more jumbled during the second half of the film, with subplots introducing a whole new set of characters late in the game. The most noteworthy of these scenes involve a group of White House staffers played by strong supporting actors Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie. Their storyline involves the government’s panic over sensitive military documents being leaked. While these scenes are often engaging, at times it also feels like their from a different movie. The most harrowing is the display of real-life footage of American soldiers in helicopters accidentally opening fire on innocent reporters in Iraq. But as plot points become muddled during the overlong third act, my interest often waned to the point of boredom.
The Fifth Estate is often interesting but rarely ever entertaining. There are many thought-provoking aspects of this story which are glossed over or only mentioned as a footnote in the epilogue, such as Assange’s accusal of rape and the plight of the anonymous sources whom leaked information to WikiLeaks. With the filmmaker’s failing to forcefully sell their compelling source material, The Fifth Estate is mostly a missed opportunity.