Anyone concerned that Bill Condon – erstwhile director of the finale to the Twilight franchise and mastermind behind such films as Gods and Monsters and Kinsey – has a one-sided political agenda with his latest film, the Wikileaks/Julian Assange biopic The Fifth Estate, rest assured: his intentions are strictly bipartisan, at least if we take him at his word in the above featurette. Clocking in at just a hair under two and a half minutes, the piece sheds insight not only on Condon’s driving motivations in his movie, but those of his leading man, Benedict Cumberbatch, too.
The clip’s arrival couldn’t be more timely: it cropped up on the web yesterday so as to coincide with the opening night of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where The Fifth Estate (whose title refers to today’s alternative media, found online and comprised of self-styled citizen journos) enjoyed its world premiere. While there’s little, if any, new footage to be seen here that hasn’t already been shown off in the first trailer, there’s a great deal of information about the spirit of the production to be gleaned from it nonetheless.
One thing’s for certain: there are a number of ideas in play with The Fifth Estate. Condon’s foremost concern lies in presenting the “bigger issues” of Wikileaks’ controversies and explore every side of them using the thriller genre as the shell; think The Social Network for Assange and his website. He also explicitly stresses that his film should by no means be taken as documentarian in nature, and he’s right to – features such as We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks are likely better resources for those interested in hard facts and history.
On the other hand, Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl (Inglourious Basterds) describe the narrative as one that’s about two friends, Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Bruhl), collaborating in the name of social justice. Their story is about a meteoric rise to prominence and infamy on a global stage, as well as the fallout of that rapid ascent. This pursuit, however, meets in the middle with Condon’s overall goal: everybody participating. From Cumberbatch, Condon, and Bruhl to Laura Linney and Stanely Tucci, everyone has a comment on what The Fifth Estate has to say about journalism in the information age.
So it looks like the film has a lot on its mind and seeks to raise a number of points about Wikileaks, Assange, and the impact of civilian vigilance on the flow of data in the world at large. But that leaves us with one much larger question: is The Fifth Estate any good? Having screened last night for an anticipatory TIFF audience, a few early reviews have rolled in, and the general consensus – at least at present – is “yes”, though with a few caveats. One notable, recurring criticism facing Condon’s movie is that it bites off a little bit more than it can chew:
Any five minutes of foregrounded human interest or backgrounded news material here could easily float a feature on its own. Both the kindest and most damning thing you can say about “The Fifth Estate” is that it primarily hobbles itself by trying to cram in more context-needy material than any single drama should have to bear.
Such tweaks will not get an artistic licence revoked. In fact, in adapting both a book on the affair by Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding, as well as tech activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s account of working for Assange, The Fifth Estate is a project in whose sources one can place considerable faith. Certainly, Condon does. At times it can feel he’s risked coherence for chronology, giving us his own surfeit of data without offering sufficient kit with which we can sift it.
On the other hand, some critics found Condon’s artistic choices to be forced and distracting, recalling too many of the blunders made in similar fare from the 1990s. Unlike David Fincher, who found a way to make the drama revolving around Facebook’s inception compelling, Condon reportedly doesn’t quite discover a formula for mining excitement out of scenes of Bruhl and Cumberbatch snooping and hacking away at their keyboards:
Writer/director Bill Condon deserves all sorts of respect for trying to figure out a way to make large chunks of this movie more visually dynamic than you’d expect, considering this is largely about people sitting in front of laptops and typing, but he runs into many of the same issues that were part of all the “computer hacker” movies in the ’90s. The only way you can make this more visually exciting is to try to find a way to make us feel, as an audience, what it feels like to be Assange and Domscheit-Berg as they publish material that they know is going to shake up the status quo, and there are moments where the film captures that quite well. There are other moments where it feels like they just plain push too hard to create a visual metaphor, and it ultimately pulled me out of those scenes instead of allowing me to invest fully in them.
Condon keeps the film moving at a relentless, techno-thriller pace, but again, he manages to prevent it from ever being too confusing or overwhelming. Condon’s only real missteps here are stylistic, with too many scenes that try to make typing in chat-rooms exciting cinematically, with the results seeming like something left over from a nineties hacker thriller like HACKERS or THE NET. Superimposing typed messages on faces, and other tricks can’t help but feel tacky. The same goes for Condon’s frequent use of heavy-handed visual motifs, like the early days of Wiki-Leaks being depicted as an office full of hundreds of Assange’s. These cutaways may be interesting visually, but again, feel more than a little contrived and unnecessary (I think less is more visually in movies like this).
That said, Condon appears to have succeeded in crafting a provocative thought-piece about the changing relationship between truth and technology, as well as the nature of modern journalism, in the era of the World Wide Web. If The Fifth Estate doesn’t achieve total cohesion in terms of plot, then it’s sure to get people talking about its subject matter anyways:
Truth and technology are inexorably intertwined because the medium is the message. Even Condon implicitly acknowledges how his movie has crafted a perception of Assange based on the source material as well as casting, editing, etc. The Fifth Estate isn’t trying to expose the “real” Julian Assange. It’s trying to examine how Assange’s creation has taken our perception of the “truth” in a bold, new, and controversial direction. The Fifth Estate provides another layer where instead of a lecture on journalism and reporting in the digital age, we get a fun, flashy picture that makes sure we consider the source.
There’s one thing above all else which everyone readily agrees on, though: Cumberbatch is fantastic as Assange. Maybe The Fifth Estate will be his high water mark for 2013, which all told has kept him incredibly busy to date (Star Trek Into Darkness) and will see him get busier as we draw closer to the year’s end (12 Years a Slave, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug). Sounds like he’s at the top of his game here.
The voice is richly perfect, not just nailing Assange’s droning accent but his tongue-lolling, wet delivery to a tee. An explosion of sweary in-flight rage when he’s hammering at his laptop drenches the seat in front with spit, in just one of countless moments where he’s shown losing his barely existent cool. Assange’s arrogant conviction about the steps he’s taking for mankind is certainly a gift to the actor, but Cumberbatch gives us other gifts back: he makes the role a feast of delusional certainty, with paranoid demons nibbling at it from all sides.
More reviews may yet pop up online in the next couple of days, but if not, there’s not much time left before The Fifth Estate opens up for general audiences and starts screening for press. For now, the overall impression of the movie is strong, if uneven; it’s possible it could spark new discussion about the place of organizations like Wikileaks in the current media landscape. We’ll see for ourselves in about a month.
The Fifth Estate arrives in US theaters October 18th, 2013.
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