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MOVIES: The Fifth Estate – The poor man’s “The Social Network” – Review

Julian Assange is one of the most famous people in the world (whether for being a hero or a criminal is debatable) but we know very little about the man himself. We know plenty about the digital revolution he catalyzed with his creation WikiLeaks – the online safe haven for whistleblowers – but he is otherwise quite an enigma. Written by Josh Singer and based on two non-fiction books about the inner-workings of WikiLeaks, The Fifth Estate seeks to not necessarily dissect Assange’s character or motivations, but instead tries to capture the reality of what he has accomplished (or destroyed) through his work.

Unfortunately, this very intriguing and timely subject matter was handed to director Bill Condon. Condon’s films are the cinematic equivalent of Kim Kardashian, passing themselves off as beautiful but unable to mask their complete lack of competency, intelligence and substance. A film by Bill Condon is going to look pretty (thanks in most part to his production designers) but with zero artistic integrity. His films are hollow imitations of what he thinks a film is supposed to be; never does he strive for an original creation.

With The Fifth Estate, we get an inside look into Assange’s massive document-leaking operation but in such a scattershot and schizophrenic style that any sense of importance is entirely lost. Early in the film we meet Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), a brilliant computer hacker who pays the bills with a job as an IT drone for a faceless corporation. Daniel has been corresponding with a man named Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has runs a site called WikiLeaks which allows people to anonymously and, most importantly, safely leak private information as a way to incriminate banks, corporations and governments who are committing atrocious crimes.

As the site grows, Assange recruits Daniel to take the information revolution to the next level. The more coverage and recognition WikiLeaks receives, the greater their impact and the potential for societal change. Assange is not content with minor leaks like illegal offshore banking practices. He wants something bigger. Eventually, his prayers are answered when a private in the United States military leaks 91,000 classified documents including war orders in Afghanistan, secret government communications and operation casualties. Assange wants to leak the documents in their entirety, but Daniel, as well as the staff at the New York Times and The Guardian, urge him to redact the names and identities of military and government personnel that may be put at risk. With his celebrity status larger than it has ever been before, Assange ignores the advice of his collaborators which leads to immeasurable fallout within WikiLeaks and the U.S. government.

Singer’s screenplay is much better than the film itself. Singer is able to cover a large number of real life events while also still developing Assange’s character in a way we can believe. (Sadly, Daniel’s character is far less developed.) In addition to the dense techno jargon which must be explained to the audience, Singer also has to set up the hacker cyberworld which he does wonderfully. His script is fast moving but also contemplative which is important considering how many ethical questions the viewer will wrestle with during and after the movie.

Condon, though, takes Singer’s very intelligent and crisp script and turns it into a bloated, bland quasi-suspense movie. Condon’s biggest downfall is that he lacks imagination, which is fine for most people, but not for a filmmaker. To create the “world” of the WikiLeaks society of volunteer revolutionaries, Singer envisions an endless room with row after row of computers, each occupied by a WikiLeaker fighting for the cause. Condon, though, takes this beautifully specific image and turns it into a strange Matrix ripoff, the scene more sci-fi than poetic.

The Matrix isn’t the only film from which Condon steals. He has clearly studied The Social Network – a near perfect film if there ever was one – and tries to compete with a true artist like David Fincher. Instead of focusing on clearly identifying the lead characters and orienting the audience to the film’s globe-spanning settings, Condon wastes his efforts on making it look cool when the characters type on a laptop or text one another. This superfluous stylistic flourish is distracting and undermines the intricacies of the plot.

Despite his director’s shortcomings, Cumberbatch still gives an outstanding performance as Assange. Through Cumberbatch we both respect and loathe Assange because see the two sides of a man who did something no one else could or would. Quickly become the most in demand actor in Hollywood, Cumberbatch gives every performance the commitment and dynamism they deserve and it is a joy to watch him work.

The Fifth Estate could have been a very good movie that reflects upon the unprecedented information overload which we face daily. Instead, it is a poorly constructed movie that is barely saved by its solid script and a terrific performance by its lead actor.

Grade: C-