THE FIFTH ESTATE (Dir. Bill Condon, 2013)
“Hero or Traitor?” asks one of the taglines for this dramatized version of the story of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange releasing today. But perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer to that question isn’t clear at all by the end of the film.
We get from Josh Singer’s screenplay, based on the books “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website” and “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy,” that Assange is a liar and a manipulator, who secretly dyes his hair and falsifies to the press the size of his site’s staff, but as to whether or not he’s actually fighting the good fight – that’s still up in the air.
As portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, having a banner year as he’s popping up everywhere from STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS to 12 YEARS A SLAVE to the sequel to THE HOBBIT (as well as starring in the British TV series Sherlock), Assange is a restless driven power-hungry player full of pompousness and platitudes such as “Courage is contagious.”
This mixed bag of a biopic begins with a montage of news clips from when WikiLeaks broke with the publishing of State Cables in 2010, then jumps back a few years before that to when Assange recruited German tech activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg to help with publicity and technical support on the up-and-coming startup.
Domscheit-Berg played by Daniel Brühl, also currently playing a real guy (Austrian racecar driver Niki Lauda) in Ron Howard’s RUSH, wrote the first of the books mentioned above that the film draws from, so a lot of the point of view present comes from his character.
It seems that Condon and screenwriter Singer sensed that a movie mostly made up of two hackers on their laptops wouldn’t be very visually interesting so they throw in a lot of visual tricks to sexy up the material. They try to take us on a journey through cyberspace with floating headlines and flashy in-your-face graphics, as well as continually returning to the motif of a sandy landscape featuring rows of desks stretching into infinity.
These artsy surreal elements only serve to distract us from the half-baked narrative, and the far from fully formed thesis. The time they take up would be better spent dealing with the sex scandals Assange was caught in that are only quickly summed up in the film’s postscript.
Cumberbatch’s invested performance is the best thing about THE FIFTH ESTATE as he looks and acts the part to a tee capturing Assange’s eccentricities in full throttle. It’s a shame that it’s in the center of such a fussy un-focused drama that works overtime to dazzle its audience instead of actually giving them any weighty insights.
A subplot concerning Laura Linney as Deputy Undersecretary of State Sarah Shaw and Stanley Tucci as Assistant Secretary of State James Boswell glib reactions to WikiLeaks has a few amusing moments, but like everything else here it never really gets under your skin.
Condon’s KINSEY, his 1995 biopic of sexologist Alfred Kinsey starring Liam Neeson, did a better job covering a real-life subject, but maybe his work on the last two TWILIGHT movies clouded up his vision here. THE FIFTH ESTATE isn’t lacking in ideas; it just doesn’t know what to do with them so it throws them all up on the screen. Trying to make one’s way through them is as futile as trying to find the answer to the hero or traitor question in this stylish mess. It’s not here or there or anywhere to be seen.