The Fifth Estate chronicles the story of Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl), a young German computer wiz/political radical, whose life is changed when he meets the acquaintance of Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a legendary hacker turned information crusader. Swept up by Assange’s charisma and ‘power to the people’ mantra, Daniel decides to lend his talents to WikiLeaks, Assange’s guerilla-style exposé website, where whistleblowers can anonymously submit confidential documents, safely exposing everything from corporate corruption to top-level government secrets.
Together, Daniel and Julian start a revolution, but when the line between righteous and reckless journalism starts to get blurred, Daniel finds both his idealistic dreams of revolution and friendship with Julian hitting the wall – and the impact will be felt the world over. Welcome to the world’s most dangerous website.
Directed by Oscar-winning director Bill Condon (Dream Girls) and based on the real Daniel Berg’s memoir, The Fifth Estate could fairly be described as The Social Network with a bit (just a bit) of a thriller edge to it. The narrative frame is largely the same – as are all the drawbacks that go with it – and the direction, while solid, isn’t inspired enough to elevate the film above the level of a B-movie biopic that proclaims to have a lot of grand ideas, but ultimately offers little more than a passing glance at an anecdotal account
It’s a difficult thing to sell the story of men who spend days alone in rooms on their laptops as cinematic intrigue; it takes a level of momentum and visual creativity to keep the audience engaged. Condon makes an admirable go of it, and some of the effects and gimmicks used to sell the digital interactions between characters are inspired; but in other instances (like one running metaphor about the website’s virtual office) the visual cues are so on-the-nose and silly it detracts from the film rather than enhancing it.
The pace never seems to drag (even at a runtime of over two hours) and the cast sell the computer keystrokes with a gravitas that works in the moment, even if it seems overblown and silly when viewed as a whole – a problem the film can’t seem escape at any turn. Condon does have a strong eye for great set pieces and colorful composition, and does a great job capturing both the dark, grungy splendor of the hacker underground and the many pristine and futuristic places that technophiles like Assange and Berg inhabit by daylight. Without such a lush visual palette, there’s no way this movie would even work as well as it does, so credit where credit is due.
The script adaptation by TV writer Josh Singer (Fringe, The West Wing, Lie to Me) may not be entirely to blame for the film’s narrative shortcomings. Not having read it, it’s nonetheless fair to speculate that the memoir by Daniel Domscheit-Berg (the real Daniel Berg) and David Leigh also shares one glaring flaw: lack of insight into its primary antagonist, Julian Assange. This being Berg’s account of events, Assange floats throughout the film as more of an enigmatic persona than a fully developed or sympathetic character, ultimately leaving us with an empty resolution built on pontification rather than insight. Biopics usually teeter between the extremes of shallow overview and hyper-stylized meditation, but The Fifth Estate somehow manages the task of being both, while not being particularly good at either.
Strong performances from a strong cast nail down a lot of the material – but Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Assange is not one of the more commendable ones. Cumberbatch (a fast-rising star with good reason) depicts Assange as almost being an odd-looking European version of Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi in Point Break - down to his British-accented suffer bro delivery. It’s an odd combination (Cumberbatch’s unorthodox looks and offbeat delivery) that never really escapes the level of an SNL parody sketch. Every time the story comes close to tapping into Cumberbatch’s more subtle talents as an actor, we’re pulled right out again as Assange flits off as ethereally and enigmatic as ever. Not much an actor can do with a man we’re never going to get to know intimately.
After one strong performance this year in Rush, Daniel Brühl continues to impress, carrying a lot of the film as both a good entry point for the audience and the through line to follow the narrative’s development. The inevitable consequences of Daniel’s journey don’t necessarily contain the same emotional impact for the audience as Brühl manages to convey onscreen, but that’s not on the actor. Brühl handles his end.
The Fifth Estate does get a boost from a pretty stellar supporting cast, including Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie all playing top U.S. State Dept. and White House officials; Game of Thrones star Carice van Houten and Run Lola Run star Moritz Bleibtreu as fellow WikiLeaks employees; and David Thewlis (Harry Potter) and Peter Capaldi (In the Loop) as top editors at big-name newspapers. With a cast that strong, Condon manages to spread the focus around without the viewer necessarily noticing (or complaining about) the very real real fact that things are being spread wide, because there is little depth to offer when it comes to the central two players: Berg and Assange.
In the end, The Fifth Estate is best suited as exploratory viewing for anyone looking to get a crash-course overview on what all the WikiLeaks fuss was about. Then again, it would probably be faster to just look it up on Wikipedia. Go figure.
The Fifth Estate is now playing in theaters. It is 128 minutes long and is Rated R for language and some violence.
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