Tuesday, October 22, 2013


The Fifth Estate

Directed by Bill Condon
Written by Josh Singer

     Julian Assange's website WikiLeaks uncovered numerous files and data that revealed the dark secrets of governments, banks and politicians. A cultural phenomenon of sorts, controlled by a silver haired narcissist that revolutionized online journalism and turned into a watchdog of the wealthy and powerful. It sounds like the premise for a highly interesting dramatic feature, but Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate falls in creating a film that does little more being a highlight reel for the websites reveals and the uneven relationship between Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his German hacker colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl). A movie more focused on Julian Assange would have been far more interesting than one that set its premise on the relationship of him and is so-called co-founder Berg. A film that was more of a docu-drama then a forced thriller would have sufficed.
     The film begins with an opening credits sequence that goes through a flashy history of large events in journalism until the rise the Internet. That and an eerie performance from the wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch, who looks very similar to Assange and has the Australian accent down precisely, are about the only interesting and compelling aspects of the film. We never really get to know who Assange is or much about his past, other than brief flashbacks to his involvement in an Australian cult "The Family" when he was young boy. The story starts in 2007 with his reveals of Afghanistan War crimes and divulging secret backroom deals of investment banks in Europe, to the huge unveiling of the war papers from the US government in 2010. Assange's mission is to expose secrets and hold the powerful accountable. The film basically just gives a pixelated rundown of these exposures, Assange globe-trotting from Kenya to Iceland to New York at varying conferences and the downfall of the relationship between Assange and Berg.
     The story is based mainly on the book from Berg "Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website" and also takes from the other WikiLeaks book "WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy" by David Leigh and Luke Harding. The perspective and the majority of the story, other than the actual events of secrets being revealed, otherwise who knows what is truly accurate, is seen through the eyes and mind of Daniel Domscheit-Berg. He is a naive German computer hacker and becomes easily persuaded by Assange to assist him with his website. The problems is that the we feel we know more about Berg than Assange. That was the obvious basis of the story, but it is huge misstep. I wanted to learn more about Assange, his background, his moral reasons and beliefs. The man is a mystery and still in exile in a London embassy, but the story revolves around his partner not himself.
     Another issue is the pacing and screenplay. It is set like a techno-thriller, I believe trying to emulate another technology based film, David Fincher's far superior The Social Network, but fails to tell an actual story. Carter Burwell's electronic score does little to add any depth to the story either. There are little to no thrills or suspense at all. A more straightforward drama with history and back story would have suited this film much better. This is not Jason Bourne-esque thriller here. There is superimposed text and instant messaging plastered on characters faces that feels highly outdated and unnecessary. Then, once the story gets to the release of the US war documents, subplots with American government agents played by Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie, feel boring and lifeless. They added nothing to the story, even though these actors are highly talented. Josh Singer's script is just blah.
    Bill Condon, director of very well-made biopics Gods and Monsters and Kinsey, needed to focus more on Assange and his viewpoint than through the vision of Berg. A very talented director who just did not have enough material, shocking, to tell a story with interesting characters and a decent story. At least Cumberbatch (Sherlock) was terrific. Sharing an uncanny resemblance to the real Julian Assange, he has his mannerisms, lisped Aussie accent and eerie, narcissistic attitude down pat. He exemplifies the darkest corners of Assange and the man's deceitful, devilish ego at being the only one that matters. He wants all the credit and basks in the notoriety and attention. What about diving into whether Assange is a saint or a traitor? That would have been intriguing, but we do not get much of an analysis on that. To be honest, the only thing that kept me invested in the film was his Cumberbatch's performance. Bruhl, who is a talented actor as well, was pale in comparison to Cumberbatch, but delivers a naive, angry performance as man who thought he was close to Assange, but realizes the man is all about himself and his expansive ego. I also want to acknowledge a wonderful supporting performance from the always brilliant David Thewlis. He plays The Guardian writer/editor Nick Davies and brings great balance to the flat story.
    In the end, The Fifth Estate is a bore. A story that could have been much more interesting with a focus on the life and reasons of Assange instead of a collage of his revealed secrets. The performances are good, but Cumberbatch is the only real reason to see this film. If you want to see a film about WikiLeaks that is interesting and much more suspenseful, see Alex Gibney's documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. Bill Condon's film does not really tell much of a story and is quite an uneventful piece of cinema.

Photo credits by IMDB.

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