Movies

Review: 'The Fifth Estate'

(Two stars)

Rising star Benedict Cumberbatch's stated intention in playing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was to portray the man as more than "just the weird, white-haired Australian dude wanted in Sweden, hiding in an embassy behind Harrods." But Bill Condon's film "The Fifth Estate" doesn't go far enough beyond the limited impression Cumberbatch describes.

Josh Singer's highly scrutinized screenplay derives from the 2011 books "Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World's Most Dangerous Website" by former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played in the film by "Rush"'s Daniel Bruhl) and "WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy" by David Leigh and Luke Harding of Britain's venerable newspaper "The Guardian." In telling the story of the news-leaking, whistle-blowing website, the movie makes the fundamental mistake of taking Domscheit-Berg's perspective and allowing Assange to become the hero's antagonist.

This is not to say that "The Fifth Estate" doesn't try to have it both ways. The film paints Assange as an unethical master manipulator, an imperious egotist and a white-haired weirdo, but it also hammers the point that WikiLeaks marked a revolution in journalism, the next evolutionary step connoted by the title. (The film opens with a snazzy montage hurtling from the image of The Ninety-Five Theses being nailed to a door to the tussle of ailing print journalism and superpowered electronic media.)

Partly, the film establishes WikiLeaks' importance through Assange's own public appraisals -- many of them grandiose -- and partly by the scrambling reaction of government officials (Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci representing the State Department, and Anthony Mackie White House communications). Linney's character muses of Assange, "I don't know which one of us history's going to judge more harshly," but "The Fifth Estate" begins the work of harshly judging Assange, for his dubious choices (principally his seemingly capricious, perhaps lazy refusal to redact anything, including addresses and phone numbers) and his reckless approach to business, his colleagues and sensitive government information.

Covering roughly 2007 to 2010 (with a tacked-on meta ending of Cumberbatch's Assange commenting on, and ironically justifying, the film you're watching), Singer and Condon hurtle through WikiLeaks touchstones, as Assange enables exposes of Swiss bank Julius Bar, the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, Guantanamo Bay, 9/11 communications and climactically the "Cablegate" launched by Bradley Manning. Flashy graphics, slick editing and the employment of mirror sites and cryptophones contribute to the impression of a high-tech paranoid thriller.

But "The Fifth Estate" turns out to be reductive in another way: It plays like the account of a jilted lover, with the would-be dazzle attempting to misdirect from the ordinariness of the personal melodrama. Workaholism and Assange's heedless intrusiveness threaten Domscheit-Berg's relationship with his girlfriend (Alicia Vikander), while Domscheit-Berg plays interference-running Watson to Cumberbatch's near-autistic Holmes. (Condon also tiresomely teases how the two men are like a gay couple, complete with an awkward dinner-with-the-parents scene.)

Ultimately, Assange's public outcry against the movie begins to look pretty justified. He is the two-dimensional (Bond) villain of the piece, at least as interested in self-aggrandizement as in what he calls "a whole new form of social justice." Not surprisingly, Cumberbatch gives a commanding performance, but corrective rewrites to the worrying early drafts of the script obviously were too little, too late to do justice to the nuanced complexities of the man and his revolution.

Rated R for language and some violence. Two hours, eight minutes.

Comments

There are no comments yet. Please share yours below.

Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Choose a category: *

Since this is the first comment on this story a new topic will also be started in Town Square! Please choose a category that best describes this story.

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields

Services, Dining and Shopping Downtown in Palo Alto
By Steve Levy | 16 comments | 2,215 views

Handmade truffle shop now open in downtown Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 2 comments | 1,940 views

It's the End of the World as We Know It: "Snowpiercer"
By Anita Felicelli | 1 comment | 1,481 views

Why is doing nothing so difficult?
By Sally Torbey | 7 comments | 961 views

Call it a novel: Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III
By Nick Taylor | 0 comments | 118 views