The Fifth Estate (2013)

2015 #144
Bill Condon | 128 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & Belgium / English | 15 / R

It’s The Julian Assange Movie, in which Benedict Cumberbatch dons a lanky white wig and an Australian accent to portray one of the most significant figures of our times, whether you like it or not.

The story is told from the perspective of Daniel Berg, played by Daniel Brühl, who first encounters Assange in Germany and is somewhat captivated by him. Daniel helps Assange to really launch WikiLeaks, and is by his side through their early fame-garnering exposés. He functions a little as Assange’s moral compass, too, especially when they receive some stolen US military files relating to their controversial Middle Eastern exploits…

Cumberbatch’s performance is the showstopper here, and it’s been justly praised. It can seem a little over the top and affected, but then people who actually knew Assange say it’s bang on, so I think we have to take it that’s what he’s like rather than it being Cumberbatch overplaying. I largely rate him as an actor anyway, so he earns the benefit of the doubt. Brühl excels in the less showy role, however — much like he did in Rush, in fact, though even that role had its share of affectations to work with, which this part does not.

Daniel is torn between ‘saving the world’ and a love interest, played by Alicia Vikander, who is everywhere right now but I think this is the first time I’ve actually seen her in something. There’s nothing remarkable about her part, so I can’t really judge her. The same goes for the rest of the cast, where a wide array of starry and/or acclaimed names (Peter Capaldi, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie, Alexander Siddig, Dan Stevens, David Thewlis, Stanley Tucci, Carice van Houten (who’s big in Belgium, it would seem)) don’t falter, but nonetheless struggle to make a mark when none are awarded anything meaty to do.

The rest of the film is unfortunately hit or miss. It begins with an absolutely fantastic two-and-a-half-minute title sequence that covers the whole history of human mass communication, from hieroglyphs to the internet and everything in between. It’s succinct, thorough, and excellent, probably the best thing about the entire movie. Elsewise, Bill Condon’s direction is a little rote. At times he seems to want to be clever and cutting edge, with on-screen tech and the visual representation of WikiLeak’s virtual office space, but it’s inconsistent, a grab-bag of tricks without a guiding principle. The rest of the movie is shot plainly. Not badly, just plainly; normally; almost old-fashioned-ly. Its directorial style doesn’t match the material. For contrast, look to David Fincher’s The Social Network, which also told the story of cutting-edge ever-so-now tech developments, but did so with filmmaking that could be described in similar terms.

Every once in a while the film interjects a US-set subplot that seems to go nowhere. The posters and trailers imply these American officials were people hunting Assange; instead, they’re relatively minor cogs in the political wheel who get caught out by what he does. They don’t seem to have any particular significance in themselves — they’re not famous, nor more wronged than anyone else — so maybe they’re just meant to be emblematic? As in, Laura Linney’s character is there to be representative of Assange’s effect, not the only person it happened to. Or was she the only person fired, and that’s the point? The film doesn’t make it clear.

In terms of understanding, it’s also very much a movie of Now. It assumes you know an awful lot of real-world context — essentially, the history of the last decade or two. Before too long, it’ll be a tough film for new viewers to follow or engage with without some kind of degree. Not everything should be made with an eye to its longevity, but one wonders how successful The Fifth Estate is in and of itself. It’s almost fiction-filmmaking as journalism: it’s about something that just happened — in some respects, is still happening — rather than an attempt to look back and explain those happenings in a historical context.

Indeed, one wonders how enlightening the film is in any respect. Assange is clearly a difficult person to get to know, by turns crusading hero and egotistical wannabe. That’s how the film depicts him, and if that’s accurate to life, well, that’s not the film’s fault — what’s wrong with having a primary character who isn’t a hero? Anyway, that’s the role Daniel is there to fulfil — he’s the honourable one; the one who’s actually invested in the site’s supposed values. But then the film is partly based on his book, so he would be the good guy.

In the end, this is an immensely complex story, with many different and contradictory sides to tell, and the film isn’t up to the task of covering them all. Great performances, though.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

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