British thespian extraordinaire, Benedict Cumberbatch, stars in ‘The Fifth Estate,’ a film that explores the recent history and scandal of WikiLeaks and its very controversial founder, Julian Assange.
‘The Fifth Estate’ follows the early days of WikiLeaks when Julian Assange (Cumberbatch) openly masqueraded his anonymous info-leaking site as powered by ‘hundreds of volunteers,’ although he was really its only employee. Australian Assange meets German Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) at a makeshift Berlin computer conference. And, soon, the computer-savvy Berg (also duped by the idea that hundreds of others are helping Assange) becomes WikiLeaks second in-command and is caught, starry-eyed, in the net of lies that Assange repeatedly spews as idealistic rhetoric.
Assange’s seeming narcissism soon takes the forefront in the WikiLeaks operation, as damming documents are published anonymously online without any editing for the protection of named individuals. Further, with each release of anonymously submitted documents to the site, WikiLeaks’ online dominance in rapid information dissemination (as well as Assange’s seeming personal quest for status) rapidly expands. WikiLeaks is able to release documents that significantly affect the Swiss private mega-bank, Julius Baer, and later, most famously, release U.S. State Department secrets concerning Afghanistan.
‘The Fifth Estate’ (i.e., a reference, here, to the class of society that belongs to the ‘networked individuals,’ who can share/disseminate information via the internet) attempts to condense Assange and WikiLeaks’ complex, worldwide, contribution to the shifted societal power structure with the advent of the internet. Although the film does connect some of the dots of the Assange story, other parts of the film can be slow-moving and even confusing. Further complicating the clarity of the film is a superfluous romance for Berg and an unneeded and awkward State Department subplot (with the otherwise, usually fabulous, Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci) to show fallout from the online information release. Even stranger, is director Bill Condon’s repeated use of fantasy-based cuts to an old-fashioned newsroom or steno pool (think hundreds of desks lined up in a massive office) that clearly visually reiterate what is happening in the film. For instance, when Berg deletes data from the website, we soon see the alt-fantasy version of the character physically smashing antiquated computers in the massive office room. (The use of this tool is almost unintentionally comedic, somewhat reminiscent of a version of SNL’s Garrett Morris’ ‘News for the Hard of Hearing’ where Morris simply yelled aloud what had just been reported).
Cumberbatch is, once again, able to give a strong performance, embodying much of what has been seen in the media of Assange. Nevertheless, however strong Cumberbatch’s acting is, the film is unable to fully capitalize on the power of his performance. Not until the film’s final third (involving Bradley Manning’s leaked documents, the publication of the Afghan War Logs, and the dissolution of WikiLeaks) does the plot finally become somewhat engrossing, but, it is a relatively small payout for a 128-minute-long investment. ‘The Fifth Estate’ is rated 3 of 5 stars (‘mildly recommended’).
‘The Fifth Estate’ is rated R for ‘language and some violence.’
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