Much of the ad campaign for The Fifth Estate, the movie about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, has touted the question of whether or not Assange is a free speech hero or a terrorist who put lives at risk. It’s a really interesting debate and one that has been churning since WikiLeaks published the insane amount of cables it obtained from Bradley Manning. It’s a great question for a movie to address.
Unfortunately, The Fifth Estate doesn’t really address it. For a film about such a controversial topic it sure does steer away from controversy, instead content to attempt to be a thriller that barely scratches the surface of the issues it could have tackled. All that being said, Benedict Cumberbatch is still awesome.
The Fifth Estate
Director: Bill Condon
Release Date: October 18, 2013
Here’s the problem, The Fifth Estate wants to be a tense political thriller instead of the insightful political drama it should be. Based off of Daniel Berg’s (Daniel Brühl) book about the founding and history of WikiLeaks the movie attempts to paint a very dramatic story behind what is basically a bunch of people uploading something to the web. This means we watch Assange (Cumberbatch) jet around and type things dramatically into a computer screen as he grows WikiLeaks and becomes more and more paranoid and out of control. It also means we get subplots about a U.S. informant whose life may have been put in danger thanks to the Bradley Manning leaks. It’s the kind of added fluff that makes you roll your eyes instead of keeping them glued to the screen.
It’s also a pretty one sided film. Although it pretends to raise the question of whether or not Assange is a hero of villain it’s definitely made up its own mind already. While the beginning of the film does offer some promise as to how they’re going to handle the controversial question it becomes steadily more apparent that Daniel Berg is the hero of the film and Julian Assange is the megalomaniac creator leader. This leads to an ending that leaves pretty much no wiggle room open about how we’re supposed to interpret Assange’s actions. While one may agree with the film’s interpretation or not the purpose of the film should have been to raise the question not answer it. A brief, and admittedly well done, bit at the end involving an interview with Cumberbatch as Assange does attempt to coral the question back into the film, but it’s too little too late.
Cumberbatch is never too little, though. While his Assange might not be a spot on impression he knocks the character he’s playing out of the park. Creepily calm and then widely insane in the blink of an eye, with a strange emotion constantly brewing behind his eyes, Cumberbatch turns a masterful performance. The bleached white hair and general oddity of Assange could have made him almost impossible to relate to, but Cumberbatch layers the performance like he’s in a far more interesting film. I really want to see the movie that Cumberbatch thought he was in because his performance has so many interesting aspects it couldn’t possibly be for what amounts to a nearly paint by numbers thriller.
As a thriller it must be said that director Bill Condon has done a decent job putting the film together, but it’s still not a very special thriller. If we get over the disappointment in the film’s inability to be the movie it should be and judge it as a political thriller we’re still missing out. The movie isn’t nearly as tight as it should be and coming in at over two hours could have easily been made shorter, and thus more interesting. Condon does his best to make typing on a computer exciting by weaving in and out of a metaphorical representation of WikiLeaks, but there’s just not enough to keep the film going for the amount of time it exists.
It also must be said that it’s simply too soon for this movie. The end of the film has about five separate chunks of text to explain what occurred since the leak and it’s incredibly obvious that there’s still so much about this we don’t know. At one point a character even questions who will be judged worse, the U.S. government or Assange, pointing out the very obvious fact that it’s just far too soon for us to sort the mess out. The problem is that instead of helping us to sort it out the film simply creates more mess by refusing to let the audience make its own decisions.
There’s definitely an intriguing movie out there to be made about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, but The Fifth Estate goes about it all wrong. Instead of diving into the controversy it glosses over it, choosing to focus on the not-so-real drama instead of the far-more-interesting controversies. Even as a standard political thriller The Fifth Estate fails since it is rarely thrilling and almost never truly political.