The short review: While it takes its time to make its point and its eyes are bigger than its stomach, Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate is a competent chronicle of the rise of Wikileaks, offering some insight into the larger than life personalities behind it, thanks in large part to splendid performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl.
The long review:
Free at last of the saccharine bunk of two Twilight films, director Bill Condon’s latest offering, The Fifth Estate, looks like the tense, geopolitical technothriller revolving around issues of governmental transparency, secrecy and corruption that we’ve been waiting for. Unfortunately, what we get is uneven, overloaded, and a lukewarm chronicle of the infinitely more colorful story of Julian Assange and Wikileaks that played out before our eyes over the last several years. The problem with biopics, as I mentioned with Captain Phillips, is that we already know how it’s going to end. The fun lies in how we get from point A to point B and making that stuff so compelling that we forget what is already a foregone conclusion. Unlike Captain Phillips, which also unfolded in the last several years, The Fifth Estate doesn’t really add to the conversation, delivering a timely but ultimately lackluster chronicle of events that we’ve already read about in more compelling detail in headlines across the web.
Based on two books – one of which is by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, played by Daniel Brühl as a sort of cipher for the audience to decode what’s really going on behind the scenes – The Fifth Estate suffers from what I’m calling The Newsroom Syndrome, to a degree. In The Newsroom, there are plenty of fine performances and they talk about important subject matter with real world implications, all of which are worthy of discussion. However, they made the infuriating decision to set it two years in the past, allowing them to take the moral high ground and self-righteously comment on what should have happened. Sure, they’ll throw a curveball in there every now and then, but it’s a safe, boring, and, for my money, moronic choice that undermines the quality of the program and what it could accomplish. The Fifth Estate doesn’t have it nearly as bad as The Newsroom does, but its sense of urgency and importance is undermined by the fact that it feels like we’re just rehashing headlines through a series of flashbacks.
Despite these gripes, I did enjoy watching the film, which I attribute primarily to the captivating performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl, playing Julian Assange and Daniel Berg, respectively. The pair are two sides of the same coin — Two-Face’s coin, to be specific. An idealistic computer whiz, Berg is captivated by the charismatic Assange with his shock of silver hair, his radical open submission platform and zero-edit policy, following him like the Pied Piper as they take down corrupt banking institutions and politicians in the name of truth, justice and freedom of information. Yet, when human lives are at stake, Berg doesn’t have the same utilitarian worldview as Assange. When Berg is unwilling to sacrifice human lives for the greater good (the saga of Bradley Manning’s motherlode of state secrets), a schism is driven between the two men driving the engine that changed the face of modern journalism. It’s heady stuff and a joy to watch the two actors play off of each other, but for all its momentum, The Fifth Estate seems to be stuck flailing in narrative quicksand. The production design and performances, particularly Benedict Cumberbatch’s studied turn, keep its head afloat. Despite its slick production and editing wizardry though, The Fifth Estate plays out less like a revelation and more like an extended recap of the last three years.
The Fifth Estate is in theaters everywhere on October 18th. What did you think of the film? Let us know in the comments below or hit me up on Twitter.