"I'm about to write a press release about death squads and I need to dress in an appropriate manner."
Billy Ray's excellent 2003 film Shattered Glass was, among other things, a thrilling expose on how the internet became a major player in the world of news reporting. The Fifth Estate, in its purist form, is a film about how the internet became the next evolution in news, beating the press at their own game. The most unfortunate thing about the film, however, is that it can't settle on an identity. Had it been content to merely tell the story of the meteoric rise of controversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, played here brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch, it might have made for a more interesting story, but in trying to tell multiple stories at once, it flounders a bit. Read on to find out why...
In 2007, Assange was a bit of a nobody, if only because the very thing he was trying to do had no identity yet. His aim was to be a pioneer in a new brand of social justice, creating a website where whistleblowers could leak sensitive information under the umbrella of total anonymity. His only ally and true believer in those early days was a man named Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) who becomes Assange's first convert in the war on corporate secret keepers. Berg devotes his time and resources to helping a man who is presented as aloof at best and downright inhospitable at his worst, meaning that there is very little reward for him outside of the self-satisfaction that this quest brings him.
As their enterprise grows, so too does their tenuous friendship and partnership, and the men seem to be veering in sharply different directions. Berg paints himself as a man with a hunger for exposing the truth without endangering anyone's lives, least of all their own. Assange meanwhile moves in a much more narcissistic direction, putting himself front and center, and the information they leak, and lives they may be endangering as a result, a distant second. Everything moves to a head when Assange gets his hands on several thousand classified documents related to the American war in Afghanistan, and how they plan to handle the release of this information.
The Fifth Estate is based, at least in part, on Berg's book Inside WikiLeaks, and by virtue of that fact, paints Berg as a bit too much of a saint, and Assange as a necessary villain. This is not to say that he's a totally villainous character, and Berg's admiration for Assange, at least in the early days, shines through some of his more despicable character traits. But as far as character assassination goes, the film has its sights firmly trained on Assange. The film seems at first to be a straight forward biopic, hitting all the familiar beats in the rise of WikiLeaks from total obscurity to world-changing entity, but it has flashes in the early going of striving to be something more.
Around the halfway point, the film makes a shift from biopic to espionage thriller territory, playing out like The Parallax View-lite or some such variation on the mid-70s paranoia thrillers. By expanding the world beyond Berg & Assange-- most of which I'm guessing is based more on the second source book Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding-- it begins to get muddled. It tries to expand along with its subject, and loses focus in a very desperate way. There are scenes involving US government officials played by Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci & Anthony Mackie, that feel like stabs at opening the world up but only end up making the film feel less focused. Had this been a television miniseries, it may have made more sense to include these characters and scenes, but in a two hour film that started as a biopic, they feel half baked at best.
Ditto a handful of sequences involving David Thewlis & Peter Capaldi as editors at the UK newspaper The Guardian. These scenes feel like they belong in an All the President's Men-style film that, again, could have been more developed given a larger scope. The worst offender in these diversions, however, are the scenes involving Alexander Siddig as a Libyan man leaking information to the US government. His scenes were a woefully misguided attempt to put a human face on the collateral damage being caused in the lives of people affected by Assange's increasingly reckless behavior, and ended up feeling wholly out of place in the grand scheme of things.
The film also skirts, outside of a text scrawl at the end of the film, the allegations of sexual assault that were leveled against Assange in 2011. The Assange presented here in this film seems strangely asexual, making this an interesting avenue to have gone down, and considering how the filmmakers seemed interested in leaving no stone unturned in this story, I'm surprised they excised this particular part of Assange's trajectory. I'm sure that the fact that the suit has yet to be settled plays into this in some way, but had the film kept its focus more firmly on Assange, it could have made for a hell of an interesting set of scenes.
Having said all that, I can't fault any of the aforementioned actors for any of these missteps. The performances are very good to great across the board in the film, and they do their best to sell the underdeveloped plot threads they were given. Cumberbatch does some of the best work of his career as Assange, and sells him as an interesting, if not terribly likable, three-dimensional person. Bruhl is also very good in the film, giving the audience a vessel through which to observe Assange. All the character actors I've already mentioned do great work as well, particularly considering how little of their characters end up in the story.
The script ends up being the film's biggest liability, if only because it suffers from an extreme lack of focus in the second and third acts. Writer Josh Singer's dialogue tends to feel a bit reductive at times as well, with the scenes that feature Assange & Berg one on one being the exceptions that prove the rule. Director Bill Condon, a veteran of great character driven films like Gods & Monsters and Kinsey, shows his strength in those scenes as well, and similarly stumbles when opening up the world, falling into bad habits he picked up making films like Twilight: Breaking Dawn and Dreamgirls.
Had The Fifth Estate established its identity and kept on the track it was headed on for the first hour, it could have been a great film. In fact, I'm almost overly fond of the first half to the point where I'm willing to give the film a slightly higher score despite its flaws. Anyone who didn't follow the rise of WikiLeaks as it was happening will find a lot to enjoy here, and will be able to fall into the film's rhythm very easily, but anyone looking for a more focused look inside the mind of Julian Assange will be disappointed to find themselves as lost as the other characters in the film. The Fifth Estate is not a bad film, but it could have been a great film, and that's almost more disappointing as a result.
GO Rating: 3/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]