THE FIFTH ESTATE
Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Peter Capaldi, Moritz Bleibtreu, Dan Stevens, Carice van Houten
MPAA Rating: (for language and some violence)
Running Time: 2:08
Release Date: 10/18/13
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 17, 2013
The primary goal of The Fifth Estate, a dramatization of the rise to prominence and fall into questionable ethical and legal activities of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, is to simplify. The notion works in the way the movie handles the technical side of things. After hearing a long speech regarding the way WikiLeaks protects its sources and its communications through encrypted chats and document sharing, director Bill Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer visualize the concept with a vast, open office space containing desks with nameplates featuring the monikers of the organization's hundreds of volunteers and, in one instance, showing how the white-haired leader met in secret with a shadowy whistleblower.
It's a clean, concise metaphor that condenses the assault of technical babble into something tangible (The opening credits sequence, a whirlwind tour through communications and the press from Egyptian hieroglyphs to the snaking web of the Internet surrounding the entire globe, has less of a purpose but is still intriguing nonetheless). We might not understand the specifics, but the visual device allows us to basically ignore what makes WikiLeaks tick and instead focus on the people behind it.
Here is where the simplification does a great disservice to the potential inherent in the movie's subject. The movie whittles down the conflict to one between a hopeless egoist and a mostly helpless, naïve up-and-comer. The latter is our entryway into the world and personality of Assange, played with single-minded determination by Benedict Cumberbatch. In the real world, Assange is a divisive figure to those who know of him and his work. He's either a hero fighting for institutional transparency in a time when the secrets of various ones seem to be working against the common folk or a villain looking to take down every power establishment with no regard for the harm that might result.
He is the personification of the debate between limitless free speech and a form of journalism that takes ethical matters into consideration. That is his importance.
Singer only gets into the central argument that Assange represents when his screenplay reaches the climactic series of leaks that made the United States finally notice him. By this time, though, the movie has already firmly established its thesis, and it has little to do with what Assange symbolizes in the bigger picture and everything to do with who he is. As it turns out, Assange without the right context is rather dull. In this telling of the story, he's not a man who took on empires and faced the ramifications but a character whose downfall is predicated on the fact that people simply don't like his personality.
The story opens on New Year's Eve of 2007 with Assange muscling his way into having some time at a technology conference in Germany with the help of Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl), a fan of the, at the time, relatively unknown activist. His impromptu lecture is sparsely attended, but Berg sees the potential for something great.
His suspicions are confirmed when Assange hesitantly tells him of his next pet project: to take down a major international bank through the publication of documents that expose lots of questionable and illegal dealings. WikiLeaks grows in notability and notoriety through a series of similar leaks that fit into Assange's primary philosophy—"Privacy for the individual; transparency for the institution." Eventually, his stories land him in trouble with the United States government, represented by two State Department officials (played by Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci) and a White House official (played by Anthony Mackie).
The irony is that WikiLeaks actually helped the government bring up prosecution in the bank scandal, but such is the nature of setting out on a mission to tear down the establishment. Inevitably, those allies who could actually do something about the injustice Assange uncovers and publicizes are going to become enemies. Until the larger, global context of his operation comes into play, the movie is really Berg's story with Assange serving as the angel or devil—depending on what one thinks of him—on Berg's shoulder. His romantic relationship with a woman (Alicia Vikander) goes through trouble as his work takes up more and more time, and Assange attempt to console him by speaking of sacrifice, like the way he has given up a normal family life with a son he hasn't seen in years.
The recap of the organization's history quickly becomes a sort of greatest hits compilation of various leaks and scoops with generic interpersonal tension growing between Berg and Assange as the two debate the best way to run the enterprise (Assange is too suspicious of people to trust anyone with his mission, and Berg pragmatically understands the need for more help). The movie starts to move past these rather uninvolving observations when Assange and Berg find themselves stars in the worlds of not only hackers but also the mass media.There's a genuine debate of ideas—a tug of war between truth and responsibility—that occurs in the movie's final act, and The Fifth Estate finally seems to understand the true nature of why Assange is a noteworthy figure in the first place. Perhaps Singer is concerned with being seen as taking a side in the argument, but whatever the reason, this is a neutered account of recent history.
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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