Fifth Estate, The (United States/Belgium, 2013)

October 19, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Fifth Estate, The Poster

Perhaps the most curious and counterproductive aspect of The Fifth Estate, the so-called "Wikileaks movie," is the decision by director Bill Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer to establish the film as a thriller. The material covered in the production's 128 minutes is not only inherently non-cinematic but not remotely "thrilling," at least in the conventional sense. Condon does his best to amp up the energy level, and there are individual scenes when he succeeds, but the movie as a whole works best during its quieter, more dramatic moments. The inclusion of tangentially related subplots (featuring the likes of Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, and Alexander Siddig) create suspenseful capsules but ultimately seem so disconnected from the overall narrative that they serve as distractions.

The Fifth Estate contains some worthwhile material, most of which is related to Benedict Cumberbatch's mesmerizing, multi-faceted performance. Since exploding on the scene in the BBC-TV series Sherlock, Cumberbatch has become typecast as an intellectually cold, emotionally stunted, off-kilter individual. It's a quality he has brought to most of his recent roles, including a turn as Khan in JJ Abrams' Star Trek into Darkness. Perhaps the reason is that Cumberbatch is so good at playing this type of personality. His skill is in evidence here; his interpretation of Julian Assange is that of a man who is many things at one time: mad prophet, sincere visionary, egomaniac, charismatic guru, narcissist. The Fifth Estate's thriller aspects emerge from Assange's inflated sense of self-importance and his evolving paranoia.

The film's structure is haphazard but, in the main, it tells of the rise of Wikileaks from an obscure website run by a man with a strict code that includes promoting free speech (at all costs), demanding transparency from big companies, and protecting sources. In the early-going, Assange is a heroic figure, a Robin Hood for the information age. Finding the task of running Wikileaks to be too big for one person, he brings aboard Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl), whose book forms the basis of the screenplay. Together, Assange and Berg score their first big coup, the February 2008 revelations of illegal activities associated with the Swiss bank Julius Baer. After that, they become involved in cat-and-mouse games with various government and legal agencies that try (usually without success) to stop the release of "sensitive" information. As Wikileaks grows, Daniel becomes increasingly concerned about Assange's methods. The two eventually split in 2010 when Assange, after partnering with The Guardian, The New York Times, and Der Spiegel, releases more than 90,000 U.S. classified documents without redacting the names of operatives, thereby putting lives in danger. Helped by two other members of Assange's staff (Moritz Bleibtreu and Carice van Houten), Daniel attempts to shut down the site.

The Fifth Estate's portrait of Assange is fragmented; in many ways, he's a secondary character since the story is presented through Berg's eyes. The "real" Assange rarely comes to the fore although there are times, such as a scene where he confides feelings of guilt and loss about neglecting his teenage son in favor of his "commitment" to Wikileaks, when Condon shows a glimpse of the man behind the image. While Assange comes to life largely through the Herculean performance of Cumberbatch, Berg isn't as lucky. Daniel Bruhl (recently seen in Ron Howard's Rush) isn't as dynamic an actor and Berg often fades into the background. This is a problem since one of the film's cornerstones is the often-stormy relationship between Assange and Berg.

Three subplots clutter the proceedings. One involves Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, and Anthony Mackie as U.S. government employees trying to deal with the Wikileaks fallout. Another focuses on Alexander Siddig as a source in Lebanon whose life is placed in danger by Assange's refusal to redact names. And a third peeks behind-the-scenes at The Guardian, where top editors played by David Thewlis and Peter Capaldi figure out how to disseminate information being fed to them by Assange. Of those three, only The Guardian segments work within the overall context. The other two belong in a different movie and, when those characters are on screen, viewers may feel like they're watching a different movie.

Assange has gone to great lengths to discredit the movie. Considering that its portrayal of him is less than flattering, that's not surprising. The story closely follows the source material but there are open questions about the factual accuracy of those books. Condon uses a late scene in the movie to address Assange's criticisms by having the character, as played by Cumberbatch, complain about "the upcoming Wikileaks movie." It's a curious moment that seems to have been incorporated as a concession. It's the first time I can recall (at least in a serious-minded film) a character openly referring to the movie in which he is appearing. Cinematic recursion.

I prefer to think of Condon as the filmmaker behind Gods and Monsters rather than the man responsible for Breaking Dawn. The intent of The Fifth Estate is a return to the earlier, more serious films. The misstep isn't the subject; it's how the subject is presented. As a thriller, The Fifth Estate is strangely inert, with a lot of movement but little in the way of genuine suspense. There are frequent shots of computer screens and numerous information-providing subtitles. The saving grace is Cumberbatch, whose overwhelming screen presence almost makes the film's flaws fade away. Almost, that is, but not quite.

Fifth Estate, The (United States/Belgium, 2013)

Run Time: 2:08
U.S. Release Date: 2013-10-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1