The screening for “The Fifth Estate” was held earlier in the week at the Disney Studios lot in Burbank, in the building just across the courtyard from where the Seven Dwarfs are holding up the Disney headquarters.
In the lobby to that screening room, there’s an ancient printing press that was used to print up the beautiful color stills of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” back in 1937. Seeing that big piece of machinery that (pardon the pun) literally dwarfs a human, it’s amazing to see how technology and media has changed today.
When WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange created the site that brought down governments and shook up others, he did it on a laptop that could fit into a carry-on case. He made a point that media now brings the world closer together, but in some ways allows you to be more anonymous.
Interestingly, this screening came on the same week that I was fired from an Internet job where the emphasis is now leaning toward unfiltered postings that anyone can do on the site—and let the reader beware.
I went into this movie with low expectations, not really wowed by the trailer or the storyline. But, after I got out I can’t stop talking about it.
So, here are 5 reasons you MUST see “The Fifth Estate.”
* It’s amazingly more action-driven than the trailers lead you to believe.
How can you make a story about an Internet company exciting? Well, there’s an international world chase, there’s plenty of high-stakes intrigue, and there’s war, despots, murder and lots more.
The story is really about two friends who have started up WikiLeaks, and then go their separate ways. Director Bill Condon calls it “a love story” (no, they’re not gay), but it has all the beats of a good romance between two people who shouldn’t be together.
* It’s a heroic story, even though the hero looks like a creepy ghostly figure with white hair.
The story follows Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) as they release confidential documents and bring down banks and even governments. The audiences are supposed to follow Daniel as he becomes enamored by this one-man watchdog who challenges the rich and powerful by leaking privileged documents.
Assange is played as his mysterious persona really is: a tall lanky, pasty-faced white-haired wispy figure. Actor Benedict Cumberbatch was nervous about portraying such an iconic and equally-respected-and-hated figure.
* It’s a true story, which makes it even scarier.
The writer and director both insist that this is NOT a documentary, but it is a true story, and they’ve delved into many facts that they painstakingly portray accurately. They discuss Assange’s background living in a cult with his family, and that he may even dye his hair white.
The screenplay is by Josh Singer (who is no stranger to conspiracy stories after writing “Fringe” and “The West Wing”). The movie is based on the book “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website” by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, and the Guardian book “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy” by David Leigh and Luke Harding. Assange has hailed some of the stuff in those books as fiction, but Singer remained as accurate and even-keeled as possible.
Singer depended on intensive research—and he got hacked and questioned by the FBI along the way—and he said, “It helped me in writing about paranoia. I started to see that maybe being paranoid wasn’t so crazy under the circumstances.”
Director Condon insists: “The film is not a documentary, and not designed to be one. A number of good documentaries on WikiLeaks already exist and there will doubtless be more. We wanted to do something different – to explore some of the bigger issues WikiLeaks provoked in the world while also taking the audience on an emotional journey with a fascinating character of our times. ‘The Fifth Estate’ represents just a slice of the WikiLeaks story, and one interpretation of it. “
* It’s going to be an Oscar contender.
No doubt this will be a Best Picture nominee at the Oscars, and director Bill Condon (who has a good track record with “Kinsey” and “Dreamgirls”) will no doubt get another Best Director nod.
(As an aside, I had the privilege of first meeting Bill for a set visit of “Gods and Monsters” when they recreated the “Bride of Frankenstein” set. The set was tucked away at a tiny local studio and there was Ian McKellen and Brandon Fraser rehearsing lines before filming. It as very cool!)
There could be actor nods, even though the two leads are unknowns. “The Fifth Estate” also stars some well-known faces including Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Dan Stevens, with Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney.
Representing the U.S. government response to the leaks of secret American documents are three fictional characters based on composites of U.S. government insiders: White House Deputy National Security Advisor Sam Coulson, played by Anthony Mackie (“The Hurt Locker”); Under Secretary of State Sarah Shaw, played by three-time Academy Award nominee Laura Linney; and James Boswell, Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs, played by Academy Award nominee Stanley Tucci.
• It’s about us all—we are the Fifth Estate.
Is the guy a terrorist or a hero? And who is the “Fifth Estate”?
The movie doesn’t paint Assange as either a hero nor as an anarchist, and leaves it up to you (us)—the Fifth Estate, to figure it all out.
Writer Singer, who spent hour after hour talking to journalists and scholars about the rapid shifts in the media that have left investigative journalism hanging by a thread, agrees that WikiLeaks filled a serious void. “We’ve lost many newspapers and thousands of journalists in the last few years and this great check that the Fourth Estate was supposed to have on power has been weakened,” he observes. “That’s where ‘citizen journalists’ have come in to pick up the slack. And it has been exciting to see when they serve as an additional check on power.”
Again, another irony that I saw it the week I lost yet another journalism job.
If you saw it, please comment below about what you thought.
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