Director: Bill Condon
Writer: Josh Singer (screenplay), Daniel Domscheit-Berg (book), David Leigh, Luke Harding (book)
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, David Thewlis, Laura Linney
Release date: October 18th, 2013
Distributors: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Entertainment One
Countries: USA, India
Running time: 128 minutes
Best part: Cumberbatch and Bruhl.
Worst part: The distracting visual style.
Patriot? Egotist? Revolutionary? Terrorist? It’s difficult to describe the most outlandish Australian outcast since Michael ‘Crocodile’ Dundee. He’s an intriguing and bizarre individual hell-bent on exposing the world’s darkest and greatest secrets. Bathroom antics and John Farnham parody videos aside, Julian Assange is, arguably, one of the world’s foremost minds. This controversial individual and his game-changing actions were bound to hit celluloid. Unfortunately, The Fifth Estate doesn’t seize its stellar opportunities, becoming a by-the-numbers docudrama unwilling to research and fact check. Sadly, this lurid and discomforting docudrama, despite the talented cast, never pushes past its immense stigma and cloying discourse.
Despite Assange’s relevance and notice within international media, The Fifth Estate delivers a confusing and befuddled analysis of his wheelings and dealings. Those uninterested in or clueless about his societal, economic, and political impact will become lost in this uninspired yet advantageous narrative. Despite the news’ importance, the best docudramas can spark viewer interest in any subject. The Fifth Estate, despite relaying vital titbits and accounts, fails to connect to the average moviegoer. The movie kicks off with the New York Times, The Guardian, and major European newspapers reporting on one of the United States military’s most crippling atrocities in 2010. The story then jumps back to 2007, and IT genius Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl) is looking for his big break into the international media and technology scene. At a tech-wiz and computer hacker’s convention in Berlin, Daniel meets his hero. Communicating with Daniel before the event, Assange(Benedict Cumberbatch)’s passion for activism and online warfare lures Daniel into a false sense of security. Working together to build information hub Wikileaks into a powerful force, Assange and Daniel become buddies. Fighting for freedom, power, and justice, the two geniuses clash over political and moral differences. When major secrets come to light, the cracks begin to appear in their already frail partnership. In addition, the US Government’s brightest, represented by Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney) and James Boswell (Stanley Tucci), seek to rescue the few informants left alive. When Daniel’s steamy relationship with co-worker Anke (Alicia Vikander) is shattered, he seeks out Guardian journalist Nick Davies (David Thewlis) to talk sense into his stress-inducing confidant.
Despite the engaging premise, this exposition-heavy drama may push moviegoers away. It’s difficult to determine the movie’s core target audience. Turning against nations, governments, and factions at random, The Fifth Estate‘s convoluted narrative could be protested against. With Assange’s outrage over the project, other, smaller scale, productions have already revealed Assange’s methodologies and motivations. With Australian mini-series Underground: The Julian Assange Story and documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks delving into this hot-button issue, The Fifth Estate presents its material in a more expansive and poetic manner. Unfortunately, this drama-thriller proves that this dense material is suited to the documentary format. Presenting specific events in a cinematic dreamscape, West Wing screenwriter Josh Singer’s diluted and dour script doesn’t delve into this issue’s most salient aspects. Throughout this over-long and debilitating docudrama, Singer delivers the ‘what’ and ‘who’ aspects of each pressing situation. The obvious details, presented as symbols in an ever-changing narrative, don’t provide the necessary ‘why’ and ‘how’ factors. Striving for the same universal acclaim and historical relevance as All the President’s Men and The Insider, The Fifth Estate recycles familiar plot-strands and messages in an underwhelming and pointless way. Despite the compelling real-life conflict, there is a significant lack of depth, drama, and development within this shallow Social Network-esque techno-thriller.
Lacking the wit and charm needed for this type of plot-heavy narrative, the ‘action’ is comprised of angry typing on keyboards, extensive research, and stupefying arguments. Despite computer hacking, investigative journalism, and whistleblowing’s value, important facts and figures aren’t divulged. Despite highlighting jargon and confusing intricacies throughout, discourses and titles aren’t explained. With the Bradley Manning saga and Assange’s rape allegations under-utilised, this overblown drama lacks balance. Leaning on Domscheit-Berg’s perspective, this distorted account doesn’t discuss the pros and cons of false identities and societal shifts. With the freedom of speech vs. citizen safety debate raging on, The Fifth Estate provides excessive metaphors. Hinting at greater conflicts, the movie looks down upon democracy, governments, and big-name publications. Its small scope and patronising tone, summed up by insignificant sub-plots, define The Fifth Estate as a manipulative and overblown docudrama. Computer hackers, defined in cinema as either saviours or super-villains, emphasise the internet’s impact on privacy, freedom, and technology. Unfortunately, Hollywood’s fantastical gleam overshadows this powerful story. Director Bill Condon (Kinsey, Dreamgirls)’s flashy and incomprehensible visual style overcompensates for the movie’s bland dramatic beats. Bombarding us with one trick after another, Condon has changed from biopic master to cynical storyteller (his Twilight instalments may be to blame). Afraid of its own topic and words, The Fifth Estate‘s aesthetic turns reality into a TV movie fantasy packed with pretentious dream sequences and overt symbolism.
“You can’t go far in this world by relying on people. People are loyal until it seems opportune not to be.” (Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), The Fifth Estate).
On multiple occasions, Condon addresses his characters as the rock-stars of their perplexing universe. Characters walk down shiny hallways and neon-lit establishments – mixing computer jargon with hipster-like intricacies. Nightclub-esque media conventions, futuristic company buildings, and exaggerated newsroom designs highlight The Fifth Estate‘s self-consciousness and obtuseness. However, Condon doesn’t stop there. Developing a Bourne-like 21st century world, shaking camerawork, globetrotting adventures, aggressive characters, and archival news footage distract from the story’s cultural significance. Assange and Daniel’s journey, summed up by kinetic, energy-drink-consumption-fuelled montages and sporadic intertitles, isn’t developed. Despite its dull personality, The Fifth Estate is saved by two ground-breaking performances. Despite not delving into personal lives or backstories, the movie establishes pressing conflicts between these immaculate minds and fragile egos. A flawed yet ambitious character, Cumberbatch’s Assange is a charismatic and misanthropic celebrity. Capturing Assange’s peculiar mannerisms, Cumberbatch develops a note-worthy and intriguing impersonation. Bruhl provides another commendable performance after his impressive turn in Rush. As an empathetic yet spotlight-obsessed genius, Daniel becomes an engaging and likeable character. Unfortunately, character actors like Anthony Mackie, Dan Stevens, and Peter Capaldi are stranded in over-the-top roles.
Despite its engaging premise and unique intentions, The Fifth Estate‘s heavy-handedness, small scope, and lurid visuals overshadow its all-important purpose. Hollywood’s involvement – linking moviegoers to this controversial issue – certainly doesn’t help. This messy and disjointed docudrama states the facts, but refuses to explore this story’s most meaningful depths.