Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Carice van Houten
Director: Bill Condon
Screenplay: Daniel Domscheit-Berg, David Leigh
Biography/Drama/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: October 18, 2013
Just when I was getting used to the Fourth Estate, here comes The Fifth Estate
Let’s see if this movie was good or in estate of confusion.
We meet Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is recruiting Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl) to help his organization leak information from whistleblowers. He needs Berg to verify the information that has been leaked about the Julius Baer Group, a Swiss investment bank. When the leaked information is posted on their website (Wikileaks.org) the bank comes under indictment for improper tax evasion strategies.
Suddenly Wikileaks begins receiving anonymously leaked information about the misdeeds of businesses and governments from all over the world. There are revelations about Sarah Palin, Scientology, and British politicians. Assange and Berg are making enemies, a fact that worries Berg but thrills Assange. Soon Berg writes a book about Wikileaks, which greatly upsets Assange. All hell breaks loose when Wikileaks experiences its greatest coup — a massive leak of incriminating American military videos, strategic information, and identities of informants involving the war in Afghanistan.
The Fifth Estate does for WikiLeaks what The Social Network did for Facebook, but not nearly as well. We’re given an inside look at what kind of mind creates a website that protects the person uploading the information – so long as that person is smart enough to redact his own name. In fact, a couple of African whistle blowers forgot that and were killed after exposing the leader of their country as a human rights violator. The information no sooner hits the streets and they are murdered in their car.
Julian Assange is painted as a near Autistic and a survivor of a right-wing political and religious cult. As a child he was beaten and forced to take psychological drugs. These factors are played to the hilt as we learn that he is a paranoid with delusions of grandeur.
Greg, The Fifth Estate covers some fascinating and controversial topics – freedom of speech, transparency of information, and privacy issues, to name a few. The star of the movie is information itself. Unfortunately, information is boring to look at. About a third of this movie is devoted to showing people huddled over their laptops, peering at their computer screens. Sometimes they are typing messages to each other. Dull, dull, dull.
This doesn’t mean that the movie is a total waste. Far from it. Cumberbatch does an extraordinary job portraying Assange. We saw Cumberbatch play the role of Kahn quite capably in Star Trek Into Darkness and, interestingly enough, in The Fifth Estate he pretty much plays the same character. Like Kahn, Assange is a dark, damaged, loose cannon. Cumberbatch is absolutely brilliant in these complex roles.
Actually, Scott, that is one of my complaints about Cumberbatch. I was introduced to him as the newest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC TV recreation Sherlock. In it he portrays Holmes as a brilliant though near autistic personality. Not unlike Kahn or Assange. Cumberbatch’s next role needs to be something different. We get it Benedict – you can do intense. Now let’s see something more.
Another complaint I have is the game we’ve been playing since the summer was over: “Hero, Hero, who is the Hero?” We’re given two characters to root for here: Assange, who is the most flawed of heroes; and Berg, who starts out naive and ultimately becomes schooled in the ways of manipulation. Neither makes for a very good hero character and the movie suffers for it.
You’re right, Greg, and that’s why I wasn’t kidding when I said that information itself is the star of the movie. One of the film’s themes is that in the modern age, information has undergone a transformation, making Wikileaks controversies even possible. But if I were forced to identify a human hero in this story, it would be Daniel Berg. At the beginning of The Fifth Estate, Berg is a fawning sycophant to Assange, and by the end he has found his voice and grown independent.
Overall, the main problem with the movie is its length. This story could have been told much more effectively as a one-hour documentary, or perhaps a one-hour made-for-TV program. Stretching events to two hours truly stretched my patience and attention span. I was literally nodding off in the theater, which is a shame because the performances here are all first-rate and the story itself raises social issues that need to be debated.
Because this is a retelling of actual events, I feel liberated to expose the ending. It’s the release of a quarter million cables by US Army Private Bradley Manning that asks the question if WikiLeaks goes too far. None of the cables were redacted making their release not only an embarrassment but potentially life threatening for many in the US State Department. WikiLeaks didn’t have the staff to fully tease the identities from the body of the text.
Ultimately, the film does what it appears to set out to do. And that is to show that a new way of getting information has evolved. Secrets can be released to the public in their original form with no way of revealing the source. WikiLeaks has ushered in a new era of complete transparency and even the highest of the high are exposed. (I loved the opening credits showing us a montage of the rise of information from cave paintings to the Gutenberg Press and the modern Internet.)
For dramatizing a complex topic and shedding light on a modern Pandora’s Box, I give The Fifth Estate 3 out of 5 Reels. But for a confusing hero’s journey (albeit well-acted by the leads) I award only 2 Heroes out of 5.
The Fifth Estate proves that you cannot make a successful movie whose main scenes show people communicating with each other over computers. While it did not entertain me at all, The Fifth Estate did make me think deeply about information privacy and transparency. This movie is therefore only a partial success and for that reason I award the film a mere 2 Reels out of 5. And for all the reasons Greg mentions, the film deserves 2 out of 5 on the Heroes scale as well.