Film Review – The Fifth Estate
The Fifth Estate
Here I am, sitting down to write my review of Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, and I’m at a loss for words. Very few films this year have registered such a lack of an emotional reaction. Heck, at least even the bad ones can inspire a bit of enthusiastic writing. This, however, just kind of exists. Unfortunate, given that its subject is a fascinating one. Julian Assange is an interesting and controversial figure. The founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, Assange made headlines when he used his website to publish classified information, expose corrupt business practices, and reveal top secret government agents from anonymous sources. Some have called him a champion for freedom of speech; others label him a threat to national security. So why, then, is such an intriguing character portrayed in such a dull movie?
I knew of Assange in the broadest and simplest of brushstrokes, and after walking out of the theater, I didn’t feel like I knew that much more about him. He’s seen through the eyes of his colleague and friend Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl), a fellow computer hacker/programmer who helped Assange build and run WikiLeaks. Along with a small group of cohorts, they developed the site, gained the façade of a large organization, and began to make a name for themselves as they started to leak confidential documents. Played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Assange comes off as a man with a stunning sense of tunnel vision. He works with specific goals in mind: making the public aware of the shady dealings happening behind their backs, and strengthening WikiLeaks’s notoriety. As the plot continues, one goal overtakes the other—can you guess which? Even when exposing government secrets threatens the safety of himself and his friends, Assange pushes forward diligently, completely ignoring potential consequences.
Condon (along with screenwriter Josh Singer) lays the narrative in a methodical, step-by-step manner. This happens, and then this happens, and then this happens afterwards. We see how Assange and Berg took down corrupt bankers and posted top-secret military videos to public domain, but because of the systematic approach, none of it delivers a lasting impact. There is no tension within scenes; we don’t sense the kind of stakes at hand, because everything is presented as a matter of fact. A promising side plot involves why Assange’s hair is white. But even after we learn the reason, the character detail just seems to fizzle out. Sure, we see a lot of people running around looking very worried about what secrets might be told, but the energy is missing. We go from one major case to another, and so forth. By the time we get to the “big” issue—where the U.S. government threatens action towards Assange—the connection to the audience is lost.
To make up for a lackluster plot, Condon compensates by integrating unnecessary cinematic flashes. Here is a case of a film being over-directed with too many tricks. For example, in a scene where Assange and Berg converse over an Internet chat room, we see them typing, we hear them talking to each other, and we see their words flashed over their faces. This comes off as going too far, to the point of exhaustion. Even worse, in another scene where we learn just how influential Assange has become, we get brought into a room full of desks, with Cumberbatch digitally copied sitting at each one. Talk about hitting the metaphor over the nose. Yes, we understand that communication has developed dramatically over the years. The way we relate to each other has become faster than ever before. But do we really need to see the development of communication throughout all of human history? From cavemen picking away at stone, to feather pens, to typewriters, to computers and cell phones—are these required for us to understand the major themes? “Subtlety” is obviously not a word spoken ‘round these parts.
If you’re looking for a film that simply presents information about Assange and his work with WikiLeaks, The Fifth Estate does it. But if you’re looking for a compelling character drama, it falters in that category. Coincidentally, a documentary came out this year called We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks that covers the exact same material. Thinking about it, this story works better in documentary form, because it relies so heavily on facts, events, dates, and evidence. The two films actually share a lot of the same real-life video footage. The main difference is how the doc presents its characters as they are, whereas the narrative asks us to engage with them as fully dimensional people. The problem is, we are never made to feel the need to know about any of them. We are briefly introduced, we visit their world for two hours, and then we go our separate ways. Whatever we are given remains on the screen instead of with us.
Final Grade: C-