‘The Fifth Estate’ Review

Published 1 year ago by , Updated November 9th, 2014 at 6:24 pm,

Benedict Cumberbatch Daniel Brühl Moritz Bleibtreu and Carice van Houten in The Fifth Estate 2013 The Fifth Estate Review

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.

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

Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl in The Fifth Estate The Fifth Estate Review

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 Fifth Estate Reveiws starring Daniel Brühl and Benedict Cumberbatch 2013 The Fifth Estate Review

Daniel Brühl and Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘The Fifth Estate’

The script adaptation by TV writer Josh Singer (FringeThe West WingLie 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.

Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci in The Fifth Estate The Fifth Estate Review

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.

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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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Our Rating:

2.5 out of 5
(Fairly Good)

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16 Comments

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  1. All critics in their reviews, who even bashed the movie said Cumberbatch was excellent and the only thing worth watching. Daniel and other journalists even said he nailed it as Assange, right from the ego and the character to the accent. This is the only review that I’ve read which differs………interesting.

    • Kofi does state Cumberbatch is “a fast-rising star with good reason”.
      Cumberbatch is an actor, whom for whatever reason, reviewers
      in general are hesitant to criticize and eager to praise.

      • Yeah, but journalists who worked closely with Assange said he nailed the character and obviously they know better. Also the consensus from Rotten Tomatoes “Heavy on detail and melodrama but missing the spark from its remarkable real-life inspiration, The Fifth Estate mostly serves as a middling showcase for Benedict Cumberbatch’s remarkable talent.” I’m not saying Kofi is wrong, I just said it was rather surprising.

        • A consensus from Rotten Tomatoes means squat these days
          and the recent track record there means it is better distrusted.

          And any journalist assessing a performance would be about as reliable
          as their assessment of politicians they cover which is hardly accurate.

          • Maybe, but having worked closely with Assange, they would know far better than any of us. They knew how Assange behaved and acted around them. We don’t know Assange personally.

            • Assange’s public persona was omnipresent and one does not
              have to know him to judge whether an imitation is convincing.

              People can and do reliably judge the imitation of any well-known
              public figure in a biopic of them without having never met any.

              Journalists do not know far better than “any of us” as usually
              their judgement is clouded by their prejudices and not objective.
              Assange is a media darling to some journalists and beyond criticism.

              • We are free to judge anyone’s imitation for that matter but the fact still remains that we don’t KNOW him. Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the character was praised heavily but journalists who worked with Assange (some hated him, some loved him), not the cause. They way he talked, his mentality, his ego were all strikingly similar to Assange. So you and I can judge sitting miles away but the fact remains, we are in no position to make a statement whether he played Assange well because we don’t know him.

                • I utterly fundamentally disagree.
                  Idris Elba is about to play Mandella.

                  And you don’t have to have known Mandella
                  to judge that upcoming performance either.

                  Nobody seems to be buying this performance
                  and that consensus is the most accurate.

                  • “Nobody seems to be buying this performance?”

                    The Guardian – “Benedict Cumberbatch is simply brilliant as Assange”
                    IGN- “this movie is mostly a bore but Cumberbatch gives a great performance.”
                    BBC- “Prime Minister David Cameron praises Cumberbatch’s performance.”
                    NY Times- “Benedict Cumberbatch is one fine actor”

  2. Daniel Brühl is in two flops in one year…
    At least they were good movies

  3. Your description of Cumberbatch sounds right on
    the money along with the rest of the review, Kofi.

    Even from the clips of the movie I found Cumberbatch’s
    “imitation” a distraction taking me out of the character.

    And again too, the point of this movie is?
    This was not the earth shattering event
    adherents like to think it was after all.

    • Agreed.

      Seems like this movie is a huge flop.

      Here in the UK, it opened at number 6 in the box office charts last Friday and for the first time ever, none of the movies showing last week made more than £900,000 (Prisoners took the closest to £1million, making it the number 1 movie for the 3rd week in a row).

      It couldn’t have been a good sign when the smug, arrogant and annoying guy this movie is about spoke out to denounce it as trash.

  4. Correction:

    Cumberbatch is doing an Australian accent….. Since Assange is Australian not British.

  5. This is the worst movie of 2013 IMO. Simply hated everything about it.

  6. We were talking about the family going to see it tonight, but alas, my daughter never called us to make arrangements. The last time I took her to the movie and to dinner, it costs us $50 we really couldn’t afford. So all may be for the best!

  7. I went and saw it out of some weird loyalty I’ve had to it and aside from Cumberbatch (to who I am a devoted fan and whose performance I didn’t mind at all) I really did not like it at all. Just too muddy and not very good. Sad that it didn’t turn out better. I think it did have potential.