The Fifth Estate (2013) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for language and some violence
Running Time: 100 min.
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi, Dan Stevens, Alicia Vikander, Carice van Houten, Stanley Tucci, Moritz Bleibtreu
Director: Bill Condon
Screenplay: Josh Singer (based on the books, "Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website", by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, and "Inside WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy", by David Leigh and Luke Harding)
Review published October 21, 2013
The Fifth Estate tells the story of the rise of WikiLeaks, a website that, since 2006, has been an outlet for whistle-blowers and other anonymous sources to post news-worthy secrets and classified information under the guise that information is freedom. Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness, The Hobbit) stars as enigmatic WikiLeaks founder and director Julian Assange, who would go from computer hacker to the figurehead for one of the most subversive movements on the internet -- a man who was feared by governments, hated by corporations, and praised by those who think these entities have far too much power over individuals.
To help create and maintain the site, especially in regards to its ability to assure complete anonymity and security, Assange recruits programming guru Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Bruhl, Rush) as a co-founder. Though Daniel is initially on board for Assange's crusade, eventually he begins to suspect that the site's overwhelming popularity has created an egomaniac in Assange, whose belief that he is righteous is clouding his judgment and is putting many innocent lives at risk.
With The Fifth Estate, director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Kinsey) tries to do the near impossible, and that's make people typing and coding on a computer something that elicits thrills to movie-going audiences. Does he succeed? Not quite, but it's a valiant effort. Condon attempts to use metaphors for the significance of each act through a series of visuals of a virtual room of users, all of whom seem to be Assange himself, a nod to the fact that Assange was a chihuahua puffed up to try to look like a big dog through the creation of a bunch of alias sources claiming to be working for WikiLeaks. When someone deletes a bunch of files, we see burning and ash, the equivalent of arson to a warehouse full of files so that your average filmgoers will understand just how important all of that lost data had been. Condon also likes to punctuate scenes with shortcut symbolism by having characters wear t-shirts with various icons or having walls painted with various iconic figures in history (Che Guevara, Albert Einstein) as a way to draw parallels between Assange's story and the fight for information throughout history.
The best aspect of The Fifth Estate is the acting, particularly in Cumberbatch's nearly spot-on portrayal of Assange, at least in his public persona. Despite this, Assange remains a mystery throughout, as the script only offers a few glimpses into what makes him tick, though we're never quite sure what's a true revelation and what's just misdirection on his part. It's not exactly the most accurate account of events, as some of the story threads are abbreviated for time and/or ease of understanding, and some of the characters (especially in the media and government) are amalgams. Assange's tawdry scandal with two women in Sweden, perhaps the one thing people know best about Assange as a person, is ignored until the pre-credits summation.
The Fifth Estate is a mostly glossy, surface-skimming look at a very complex set of international issues, meant for those viewers who are uninitiated to just what WikiLeaks is and how it has affected the way confidential documents are stored, and the avenues by which whistleblowers come out to the media. The film mostly covers the period starting with how information published on the website ended up taking down baking giant Julius Baer up through the immense controversy surrounding the leaking of over 90,000 U.S. State Department documents surrounding the War in Afghanistan, by whistleblower Bradley Manning.
This is the second film of 2013 about WikiLeaks and Assange, and by most accounts, the documentary that came first (We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks) does it better. It's just not a story that lends well to a dramatized presentation, and though the issues are important, they don't exactly make for an interesting plotline or for characters we enjoy following without a thematic underpinning to wrap it all around, much in the way that the mostly fictitious but highly watchable The Social Network does. It's based on accounts written in two books, one written by Daniel Berg himself, and the other an expose on Assange by David Leigh and Luke Harding. Not surprisingly, both books having been claimed by Assange as factually inaccurate, as well as the films that have been based on them.
If you're interested in the subject matter but aren't really sure where to begin, The Fifth Estate an interesting starting point to whet your appetite, but those who already know the full and accurate story will likely be bored, while those who are wholly unfamiliar or uninterested will likely not find it good enough as a movie, or even a basic story, to want to sit through for over two hours. The Social Network had been a success because Facebook is a website that hundreds of millions use and understand. WikiLeaks is a site that comparatively few non-media people visit, mostly gaining notoriety due to it being the source for many bombshell releases from anonymous sources.
The Fifth Estate feels like a film that might find a better home if it were an HBO original movie rather than a major motion picture release. While the stakes involved may be high, this dramatization yields low returns as a film, and with a helping heaping of embellishments, it isn't even worthwhile as a realistic account of events. It's a better bet, for those looking for a more interesting take, to stick with the books and the documentary -- or even just a Wikipedia recap.
©2013 Vince Leo