The Julian Assange biopic The Fifth Estate can't decide if it's a political thriller or an advertisement for WikiLeaks.
THE FIFTH ESTATE BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH Interview-
Whether your opinion of Julian Assange is positive or not, one cannot deny the effect of his WikiLeaks site. What was the hallowed ground for investigative reporting by dinosaur newspapers has become a wide open arena for bloggers with a story to tell. Yet, there's a shortsightedness to making a film based on someone who hasn't yet died - are they destined to achieve more, or will their success lead to a disastrous fall? The problems with the biopic The Fifth Estate lie on this and other arguments, particularly those surrounding what kind of film it wants to be. Unfortunately, it never quite gets to where it could, settling for something flashy and scattershot instead of something substantive.
Army-of-one Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a rebel by trade. Sporting long white hair with a checkered family history, he's a nervous hacker who's tired of the lies of big business and unfeeling governments. His WikiLeaks site is his digital catharsis, taking down corrupt leaders and bank bosses while garnering front page news around the world. But Assange is also a walking ego, obsessed with his growing self-importance and unwillingness to measure the effect which these releases will have on those whose names are contained within. But the site behind the man belies a simple truth: he really is his own army, with more adoring fans than actual soldiers. Enter Daniel Schmitt (Daniel Brül), who becomes Assange's right hand man; he's the Quality Control guy, verifying the authenticity of documents before they're released. Soon, the two have garnered the attention of the US government, including Defense Secretary Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney), who's worried that Assange's gameplay will ultimately compromise her assets in the field. She's soon proven correct, when a stack of sensitive communiques are released, complete with the names of several US operatives. Realizing that Assange has gone too far by refusing to redact the names, Schmitt must decide whether he will respond to his firing by Assange as a chance to do what he thinks is right.
Cumberbatch has easily become one of the most engaging actors of the time, effortlessly able to wrap himself up into his characters, whether it be Sherlock Holmes, Van Gogh, or even the physicist Stephen Hawking. His lispy portrayal of Assange is right on the money, as is his penchant for never really talking to the camera. Brül has already starred in this year's very good Rush, and it's nice to see that his portrayal of Niki Lauder wasn't just a fluke. Schmitt is caught between the spirit of accountability and transparency and the morality of placing good people's names out in the open, and Brül handles it as well as anyone could. Whether Estate on the whole works or not is debatable, because it simply cannot decide what it wants to be. Is it a political thriller about the dangers of those who bravely serve in the field? Is it a story about rugged self-individualism on the Wild Wild Web? Or is it an advertisement for WikiLeaks itself? Had Director Bill Condon just focused on one of these aspects, we could have had a truly resonant and timely piece. Instead, we get a fairly flashy but bumbling tale by Writer Josh Singer that fails to utilize all of its assets. Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie are relegated to nonsensical roles as US officials who realize too late what Assange is planning, while Schmitt's girlfriend (Alicia Vikander) tries unsuccessful to occupy that is quickly lost during an inconsequential sex scene. I did like Linney's story, as Shaw rushes to measure the full impact of the WikiLeaks release while protecting a compromised asset. Her interplay reminded me of Chris Terrio's tightly-wound Argo; but her role is limited to damage control, and that's clearly not the best part of her story.
Well-acted by its leads and with its finger on the pulse of current events, The Fifth Estate tries desperately to be valuable in a time of the 24-hour news cycle. In the end, it's a victim of its own creation, content to portray a figure whose whole story hasn't been told quite yet, but whose flash decries the general lack of a soul. Unfortunately, the tale is not effective enough for us to care, even if the site he has created has done just the opposite. I wish I had emerged from the theater feeling better about its message, but as we approach the Oscar season, this one is doomed to a quick death with little to no consideration. The Fifth Estate is rated a surprising R for violence and language and has a runtime of 128 minutes.
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