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The Fifth Estate (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 13, 2020

The Fifth Estate


Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Anthony Mackie, Peter Capaldi, Alexander Siddig, Carice van Houten, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Dan Stevens and Moritz Bleibtreu.

Screenplay by Josh Singer.

Directed by Bill Condon.

Distributed by Touchstone Pictures. 128 minutes. Rated R.

It's always a bit tricky to make a film based on recent history. Most of the audience who has any interest in the subject will already have relatively strong opinions about the cases and the characters. Besides, the stories are already are saturated in our minds, so seeing a recreation of what happened is not always conducive to the audience's beliefs.

That is why most films along these lines do not really connect with audiences. Some recent examples are Fair Game (the Valerie Plame outing), Casino Jack (disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff), The Iron Lady (Margaret Thatcher) and September 11th films United 93 and World Trade Center, all of which were box office disappointments. Even Oscar-faves like Zero Dark Thirty (the killing of Osama Bin Laden), Frost/Nixon (the Richard Nixon/David Frost interview) and The Social Network (Mark Zuckerberg's creation of Facebook) were only marginal box-office successes.

In fact, the genre seems to work better in the more moderate context of HBO movies, which have done relatively good jobs portraying everything from Sarah Palin (Game Change) to the financial meltdown (Too Big to Fail) to the Phil Spector murder (Phil Spector) to Jack Kevorkian (You Don't Know Jack).

There were high hopes when The Fifth Estate was released in theaters last year that perhaps it would be a film that bucked the trend, but then it was released to audience indifference. Now that it is receiving video release, we can look back and see if it deserved more attention than it received.

The Fifth Estate both benefits and suffers from the fact that its central character – Wikileaks founder Julian Assange – is both bracingly eccentric and a complete cipher. Therefore, he is a fascinating character, but he's also difficult for the audience to get a hold of in their mind.

This is only compounded by the performance of respected British actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. His take on Assange often seems a bit stilted and over-the-top, and yet news clips show that is actually a fairly accurate impersonation of Assange, who tends to enjoy creating the myth of himself on the fly.

Unlike many of these films, The Fifth Estate was definitely done without Assange's cooperation – in fact, he contacted Cumberbatch in an attempt to dissuade him from playing the role. This actually leads to a very clever post-modern scene at the end of the film in which Cumberbatch as Assange mocks and trivializes the making of the very film he is in.

If all of The Fifth Estate were as knowingly self-aware as that, it would be a pretty special film. As it is, it works fairly well as a modern techno-thriller with just a bit higher stakes than most.

The biggest problem with The Fifth Estate is a basic one that bedevils most techno-thrillers – there is just nothing visually or aesthetically exciting about watching people sitting around and typing. Therefore, no matter how devastating the potential outcome of their acts may be, it feels smaller and less vital just due to the lack of activity around it.

And The Fifth Estate is playing in some serious waters. Wikileaks rose to prominence from complete obscurity through its ability and willingness to out corporate and government secrets to the entire world.

The Fifth Estate shows the genesis of the site, from a small-time operation in which Assange had big dreams and hooked up with a German hacker named Daniel Domscheit-Berg, played by Daniel Brühl of Rush and Goodbye, Lenin. Domscheit-Berg's book about Wikileaks is one of two sources for the book – and in fairness has been strongly trashed by Assange.

Assange finds the dirt and Domscheit-Berg handles the technical aspects. Eventually the site becomes powerful enough to topple a major bank in Iceland, but they consider it just the beginning. Finally, a rift starts between the partners when Assange releases the entirety of former US military officer Bradley Manning's leaked top-secret data. Domscheit-Berg believes that some of it should be redacted to protect innocents and spies whose lives will be put in great peril. Assange insists on releasing it all, no cuts, consequences be damned.

Screenwriter Josh Singer and director Bill Condon seem to be trying to neutral as far as Assange's actions, though eventually the film seems to turn upon its anti-hero. Toward the end of the film he seems more and more to be an egomaniac and a bit of a zealot to his own cause.

Of course, this fluidity of point of view may have to do with the source material. The film's disappointment in Assange seems to coincide with that of Daniel Domscheit-Berg, going from the loyal converted to disappointed, skeptical, and estranged. Are either of the extremes, right? Probably not, and yet in ways probably both are as well.

The Fifth Estate takes on some huge moral conundrums and does a fairly good job at fleshing them out. It's not a great movie, but it's certainly an interesting one.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2014 All rights reserved. Posted: January 27, 2014.

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