Review: ‘The Fifth Estate’ Turns ‘New’ Journalism into Old Cliches

By October 11, 2013
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Directed by Bill Condon, The Fifth Estate plays less like a drama and more like a supervillian’s origin story that takes place in a strangely unreal real world. It’s based on two separate books about Wikileaks — the open-submission publishing platform for whistleblowers designed by Julian Assange to air the dirty laundry of governments worldwide — but on-screen, its cinematic influences are apparent. It’s partially a story of a (non-) media (non-) mogul that includes present-day scenes of his smarts and flashback scenes of his traumatic childhood, Citizen Kane about a brain; it’s also the story of a idea in computing that wound up altering the world and the way it altered the people who first had that idea, The Social Network about anti-social people. It’s one thing to suggest that The Fifth Estate doesn’t reach the heights of those two films; worse, The Fifth Estate doesn’t even reach the heights of its own story.

With hacker and anti-authoritarian Julian Assange played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Condon at least has an actor who can portray intelligence; it’s too bad that Cumberbatch’s past resume of Sherlock Holmes and sci-fi supervillians makes it a point on a line and not a performance in and of itself. Playing Julian Assange’s onetime partner — and the author of one of the two books used for this film — Daniel Berg is played by Daniel Bruhl (Inglourious Basterds, Rush), and much of the film revolves around how the two slowly came together and swiftly fell apart. Berg believed in Assange’s mission of using anonymity and global publishing at the click of a mouse as a lever to move the largest governments and corporations in the world towards transparency and ethical behavior; it’s the methods and motives for that mission that Berg starts to doubt. At first, Assange is Lennon to Berg’s McCartney; later, Assange is Lenin to Berg’s Trotsky.

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Condon tries to nail a challenge that has eluded filmmakers since the mouse and web came out of Xerox PARC and DARPA: How do you make typing interesting? Condon adds bells and whistles to everything — we not only see chat relayed between Assange and Berg’s computers as text but also hear it as voice-over — and when we’re encouraged to envision Wikileaks as an office that could be anywhere, that’s exactly what Condon gives us.

The great irony is that in sexing up the story to make it more interesting, Condon gives short shrift to the things that actually are interesting about Wikileaks — its successes in exposing bad banking, offshore tax havens, electoral fraud, war crimes, and the uglier subtexts behind the polite world of international diplomacy. But The Fifth Estate tries so hard to make the Assange/Berg conflict the way to tell the bigger story that it turns the political background and broad philosophy of Wikileaks into a series of personal grudges and narrow hissyfits.

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The Fifth Estate also follows on the heels of Alex Gibney’s documentary Wikileaks: We Steal Secrets, which managed to not only present more information than Condon’s dramatic take but also convey more drama. Also, the intimation that Assange’s kind of transparency is too dangerous and too irresponsible gets dramatized in the film through a laughable Laura Linney subplot of absolute fiction and scenes where Assange butts heads with the editors of Der Spiegel, The New York Times and The Guardian. Off-screen in the real world, The New Yorker recently launched its own anonymous open-submission platform, and Wikileaks did expose actual war crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s easy to understand why the scandal-bait Assange-centered focus of this film feels so phony and off-key: A preponderance of evidence proves Assange is a criminal and (less technically) a horrible human being. However, whatever his crimes and failings, he’s never killed unarmed journalists and children from a helicopter, or hunted human beings, or given cash payouts to the Taliban. This may be the greatest failing of The Fifth Estate: It takes place in a world of dirty (non-)secrets our tax dollars pay for and sells it back to us as low-grade Soap Opera.

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James Rocchi lives in Los Angeles. Born in Canada, he's a regular contributor, interviewer and reviewer for MSN Movies, Indiewire's The Playlist, GeekNation, ScreenCrush.com and the Toronto Star. He's also written for ifc.com, Netflix, Mother Jones magazine and The Guardian UK. A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, you can find him on twitter @jamesrocchi.