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Film Review: The Fifth Estate

The Fifth Estate
Benedict Cumberbatch (left) portrays Julian Assange and Daniel Brühl portrays Daniel Domscheit-Berg in the DreamWorks Pictures’ drama “The Fifth Estate” Photo By: Frank Connor
©DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.  All Rights Reserved.

History has yet to judge Julian Assange and his provocative views embodied by his website WikiLeaks. In the meantime audiences can familiarize themselves with the story of the website’s foundation in Dreamworks’ Pictures and Touchstone Pictures’ The Fifth Estate.

The Fifth Estate focuses on the efforts of Julian Assange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) to make WikiLeaks a revolutionary and relevant platform for whistleblowers to publish sensitive information that reveals corruption and injustice. Assange recruits a like-minded associate in Daniel Berg (played by Daniel Bruhl) to help ensure that WikiLeaks is never shut down by governments worried about the dangerous transparency WikiLeaks represents. As the type of information posted on WikiLeaks becomes more sensitive and substantial, Berg and Assange clash over the issues of protecting sources and the ethical limits of transparency. Their tumultuous relationship reaches its limit once the Bradley Manning leaks shake the foundation of WikiLeaks, Daniel Berg’s loyalty, and Julian Assange’s convictions.

The movie is based on two books: Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website by former WikiLeaks spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding. Josh Singer is credited as the screenwriter and Bill Condon directed the film.

The Fifth Estate attempts to build the context of WikiLeaks foundations, functions, and growth by highlighting initial successes during its infancy and offering some insight into the mind and motivations of Julian Assange. Most individuals primarily associate WikiLeaks with the Bradley (aka Chelsea) Manning controversy and Assange’s criminal charges that led to his seeking political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy. Many are unfamiliar with WikiLeaks social activism agenda of fighting for free speech and transparency.

Sadly, that context will be lost on much of the audience. The pace of the movie is rushed and unfocused. It doesn’t allow the audience to absorb the gravity of the early decisions made by Assange and Berg, taking away much of that necessary tension that would actually classify this movie as a thriller. The film finally slows down around the latter half but then you realize that the reason for the quick pace is because their is little depth and development. The characters are stagnant while the events portrayed in the first half of the film requires knowledge of international current events and politics that hard to find in the common audience.

When the film finally introduces the issue of the Iraq War video and the Manning diplomatic cable leaks, events the audience will be much more familiar with, everything is anti-climatic and boring. In two separate scenes Assange is concerned about being followed by various government agents (in the second instance his paranoia is indeed confirmed) yet there is no feeling of suspense or peril. Neither incident amounts to anything except poor execution in attempt to mimic a spy movie.

To round out its many flaws, the writing focuses on some odd and ineffective storytelling choices. For some reason there was a decision to include a subplot involving a mid-level State Department analyst and her Libyan informant that adds nothing to the film. It is completely unnecessary and uninteresting, drags the movie on, and is detached from the main plot. Another questionable inclusion is a romantic subplot involving Berg and a former coworker that adds little to his character development that somehow made the cut. Even the direction is questionable as the metaphorical imagery constructed to visually represent WikiLeaks foundation, function, and destruction is cheesy and unimaginative.

A lone positive to point to is Cumberbatch’s performance. While not stellar, he manages to be the lone pleasant aspect of the movie. Perhaps with a better script and direction his take on Assange could employ more of his talent, but the audience is left with a fairly surface-level character. Meanwhile Bruhl’s portrayal of Daniel Berg is nothing special or riveting as he disappears into much of the movie despite the entire story being told primarily from his perspective.

All in all, The Fifth Estate is a disappointingly anti-climatic look at recent important event in history. It is neither all that entertaining or thought provoking and doesn’t lend any new insight into the life of an enigmatic and provocative figure of recent history.

And if a movie cannot do either of those, then what’s the point?

Grade: D+

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Aaron Zamora

Aaron grew up in Whittier, California and is currently finishing his master's degree in Human Communication studies from California State University, Fullerton. His interest in journalism began in high school where he served as the Editor-in-Chief for his school’s newspaper and participated in their inaugural broadcast journalism program. An avid world traveler, Aaron has a wide array of interest that include a passion for cinema and television. He is also a sports fanatic.

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