The Fifth Estate Review
Posted by Terry Lewis on 10.18.2013
Star Trek Into Darkness star Benedict Cumberbatch plays controversial Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate! But how does the film stack up? 411's Terry Lewis checks in with his full review!
Benedict Cumberbatch - Julian Assange Daniel Brühl - Daniel Domscheit-Berg David Thewlis - Nick Davies Laura Linney - Sarah Shaw Stanley Tucci - James Boswell Anthony Mackie - Sam Coulson Alicia Vikander - Anke Domscheit-Berg Peter Capaldi - Alan Rusbridger Dan Stevens - Ian Katz
Oh that’s better, that’s way better. Forgive me for being a tad biased but we’re at least getting out of the swell of bio-pics with something thoughtful. Personally The Fifth Estate is right up my street and hopefully yours too with the story of how news/sensitive information leaking website Wikileaks came to prominence under the eyes of it’s founder Julian Assange. If that doesn’t wet your appetite, you do have the opportunity to see an actor in the prime of his career in one Benedict Cumberbatch.
The Fifth Estate is the chronicling of the foundation of Wikileaks through the eyes of Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl, Rush), a clever internet savvy chap who dips his toes in the same circle of Australian journalist cum political activist Assange (Cumberbatch, Star Trek Into Darkness). The two bond over righting the injustices with sensitive information being kept hidden from the public, although Assange demands more than just a fleeting interest from his number two. As the site grows, the greater the danger arrives to the supposedly anonymous contributors to the site. With an offering of United States government and army leaks from the war in Afghanistan, a moral conflict and establish press outlets put the two under considerable pressure.
It bothers me wholesomely if an actor or actress fails to accurately undergo a transformation to accurately capture the main subject’s essence. No such worry with Cumberbatch who essentially becomes Assange for the role. Going so far as to have contact lenses and false teeth put in, as well as the obvious but realistic wigs, he easily assumes the look of Assange quite well. Even more impressive is how he captures the soul of a complex man. The film is based partially on Domscheit-Berg’s book on Wikileaks so it allows Cumberbatch to play up to the megalomaniac and austistic qualities presented to us from that viewpoint. Not too dissimilar from his Sherlock work, yet it’s always engaging especially when it’s in the spirit of a man who arguably became the most important news editor in the world at one point and with the power who goes with it. Terrifyingly great. Expect him to clear up awards season.
Speaking of Domscheit-Berg, I was looking forward to seeing more of Brühl after his fantastic turn in Rush. Sadly, even though it’s his characters’ tale, he feels a bit of a passenger along the bumpy Assange ride. I guess that’s how it must have felt but I feel it’s bit more of an error of the direction which we’ll get into later. There are bits where Brühl does stand up and is on par with Assange in a battle of morals but more than anything else, you feel as if he’s placed as the human side of the film’s plot since he’s given a non-essential love interest (a capable Alicia Vikander, Anna Karenina) to varying degrees of success.
The supporting cast is given a true international flavour which is needed due to The Fifth Estate’s complex and elaborate plot. I know this is a breakout year for Anthony Mackie (Runner Runner) with all the film roles he’s had but it’s more of quantity over quality especially on this evidence in a small US Government advisor role not showcasing his talents. The British side is well represented in the form of The Guardian newspaper, headed by rough, gruff and leather jacket wearing reporter Nick Davies played by always welcome David Thewlis (Harry Potter). Pumped up by incoming Doctor WhoPeter Capaldi and Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey as the paper’s editorial team, they herald back in the “golden age” of journalism and reporters as out to get a story within their means in a changing media and news coverage landscape.
There is quite a lot of content here to soak in. Probably too many subplots but they’re all relevant and fairly essential to the story The Fifth Estate is telling. It leads to the film gets bogged down with so many minor yet important characters in the second half and their storyarcs. Actually you could still follow the story without too many problems but it definitely gives the impression it’s handled quite clumsily through poor direction. What do you expect from Bill Condon, the guy who brought us the last two Twilight: Breaking Dawn films? Being fair, his cinematography or people he may have selected for it has improved considerably making a 30 million dollar budget film look better and clearer than a godawful $200 million mess.
I’ll give Condon some slack as the expansive world is fairly tricky to adapt. Along with Assange and Domscheit-Berg’s globe-trotting adventures, we have to cover the The Guardian’s attempts to bring them on board, the background of Wikileaks, how it gives anonymity to contributors, how this backfires, the US military Afghan-file mcguffin, the fallout to that being leaked, the morality behind leaking it… it IS a lot to cover but it’s done okay. Borderline best it could be done. Although personally I’m still failing to see how Europe is portrayed as gloomy dump compared to brightness of well everywhere else. Relegating Domscheit-Berg in places doesn’t help either as overall I felt, despite being his story and film, he’s merely a narrator with a moral code looking in on the whacky world of Assange. Those office scenes with the infinite users as Assange’s “army”/”supporters” were intended to be trippy but look cheesy and massively fake. You’re glad when the office gets wrecked up later on the film.
Ignore those for a second because The Fifth Estate really stands out in how much depth thematically it has. We deal with how sites like Wikileaks are developing still today as the main source of hard news over traditional news sources like newspapers and television, stuck in the rot of “churnalism”. As such, we see how Wikileaks struggles to gain legitimacy and protection as it’s an uncontrollable news source – how can it be regulated? The most delicious morsal is saved for the organised leaking of the US Afghanistan documents with Assange wanting to publish them unedited and Domscheit-Berg wanting to clear them first for people’s personal details. A case of honouring the people who have died in course of these papers or saving those who could be harmed from their release, it’s a truly engrossing subject. Forgive me for talking it up but I did a journalism degree and all the philosophical debates here is better and more engaging than anything I learnt in one specific module in three years.
Much has been made of Assange disowning the film as it’s based on Domscheit-Berg’s account before the two fell out. So whilst we are looking through the eyes of a biased source, there is an attempt to show Assange’s personal side, despite the obvious megalomaniac tendancies in his “don’t stop for nothing” attitude and his bullshittiness. Harking back to his true childhood, you can have some sympathy for Assange before seeing the media monster he’s become. Although, quite rightly, the question of whether he’s a pioneer or a ruthless sod is left entirely up to you the viewer.
The 411: Perhaps a niche appeal film in the sense that you’ll only get the most out of The Fifth Estate if you’re really into the source material and the evolution of journalism and media theories. A biased account of the rise and stumble of Wikileaks and Assange makes for a great movie and is worth a watch, despite some decidedly dodgy direction. Highly enjoyable if you’re a fan of the subject matter. If not there’s always the Cumberbatch tearing up whatever scenes he's in as an Australian megalomaniac.