The film itself features a character that tells us, "All good stories usually start at the beginning." So it is no surprise then, that The Fifth Estate begins near the end. We see major news organizations across the globe who in 2010 were ready to make public thousands of leaked documents and wires from the U.S. Government that had found their way on to the WikiLeaks website. This website, whose initial purpose was to provide an anonymous means for whistle-blowers to reveal hidden truths to the rest of the world, had become an untethered global source of news by this time.
For a biopic, the story oddly doesn't let us into the mind of Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch). He is definitely a major character and player, but the film instead reveals itself through the eyes of Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl), who was a computer whiz and an integral part of helping Assange get WikiLeaks off the ground. We are treated to several distracting conventions, like the plot structure (beginning near the end, then taking us back to the beginning) and a love story for Daniel that simply has nothing to do with the overall story. Daniel is not really developed as a real person, rather, he exists only to provide a counter-point to Assange's rebel brilliance.
This is a film about the origins of a website...which does not necessarily qualify as a riveting visual epic. Director Bill Condon over-stylizes his film to create drama and interest, with shaky shots, interesting angles and even metaphoric images of Assange and Berg as they ascend to worldwide fame. All of this is pretty thin, coming across more or less as what it is: A director trying desperately to make a film about an interesting subject interesting...when in fact the story of WikiLeaks is probably more entertaining when read on Wikipedia.
There's nothing quite wrong with The Fifth Estate, it's just drab. Having of course heard of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, the film did enlighten me as to both of their importance on a world scale and the dangers of "unfiltered" news being made public. That is the crux after all: Assange's mission is not to edit any of the documents that are anonymously posted on his site, yet in doing so, several bits of personal information contained in these documents directly threatens lives around the globe.
The film's worst mistake is in keeping a distance from Assange for a long portion of the film. In conversation with Berg, Assange reveals his purposes and much of the film walks a non-judgmental fine line. Until towards the very end, it clearly and harshly comes down on one side of the argument. Hero or traitor? It's clear by the film's end which we are supposed to believe.
But then again, one of the main themes of the film is to question what you hear when filtered through a news source, TV show or movie. Perhaps that's the morale: That we are not supposed to just take this movie - or any bit of information - at face value.
But as a film, if you're not going to say something, then what's the point? The Fifth Estate effectively tells us the importance of WikiLeaks, paints Assange a certain way and then tries to soften the blow by telling us "not to believe everything we see." A more effective film may have tried to uncover some truths instead of just pointing out that the truth is out there.
Genre: Drama, Biography
Run Time: 2 hours, 8 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci
Directed by Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 & 2)
Opens locally on Friday, Oct 18, 2013 (check for show times).
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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time