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The Fifth Estate


Directed by: Bill Condon
Starring: Benedict Cumberbach, Daniel Brühl, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci
Review:  2.5 stars (of five)

The Fifth Estate is not a terribly good movie, but it’s mostly inoffensive in its failures, and it has a good cast rambling through an underconsidered script and direction that ranges from workable to garish. (Because it’s about living people who have done controversial and unconventional things, it may be offensive to the better-informed.  Safe to say Julian Assange is a little pissed.)

It’s the story of Wikileaks, based in part on a book written by founder Julian Assange’s most significant collaborator.  That story amounts to this:  Former hacker creates site for anonymous leaking of secret information.  Pretends his organization is more than just himself and one server, lying even to his closest associates.  Is kind of a dick.  With the Bradley Manning leaks, Assange’s ego and singlemindedness lead  him to recklessly leak thousands of papers that might endanger lives and embarrass people for no legitimate public value.  Later holes up in an embassy in London.  Is still a dick.

However, the title of the movie is not “Wikileaked,” or “Julian Assange is Clearly a Dick,” but “The Fifth Estate,” a reference to the idea that whistleblowers and “citizen journalists” are the next iteration of the oversight role played by traditional journalism, the “fourth estate.”  And further, the opening titles present a montage that cuts from hieroglyphics to illuminated manuscripts to the printing press, the manual typewriter and computers—contextualizing this story within the evolving history of how information is recorded and disseminated.  Big stuff.  So what do the writers and director Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Parts 1&2) say about that?

5E-02Well, they come down on the side of responsible redaction.  They use a Guardian journalist as a puppet to frequently tell us what’s what, and he often tells us that the combination of traditional, responsible media and the crowdsourced mojo of Wikileakers is a good thing.  He also tells us we live in a new age.  I think there was more, but I’m surprised that only two days after seeing it, I can’t remember the rest.  Which means the filmmakers managed the feat of both laboriously telling me what the film was about, and doing so in a way that I cannot be bothered to recall.

(It might’ve been nice to contrast the next evolution in this trend, in which Edward Snowden protected himself better than Bradley/Chelsea Manning did, and controlled the intelligent, planned release of information, rather than Assange’s arguably irresponsible data dump.  But, alas.)

I do recall how Assange, played by Benjamin Cumberbach, closes the film.  Hiding in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, he speaks directly to a documentary camera for some undisclosed reason and says this is all about the fact that forces in power are afraid of their populations, and the new tools at our disposals.  “It’s all about you,” he says, then looks away with a smirk.  “And a little about me.”  Such a dick.

Condon’s direction suffers from a script that is, by necessity, heavy on guys typing at keyboards.  Which he “fixes” by rendering it virtually as a vast row of desks in an office space with sand for ground and sky for ceiling.  If you think this sounds stupid, you should see the climactic scene in which the film’s hero, Wikipedia’s No. 2 guy, symbolically overturns the virtual desks and smashes the virtual computers–in slow motion.  It’s embarrassing to watch.

5E-01Also, Condon doesn’t seem to know how to generate tension from anything, nor does he have a sense of how to put together the elements of this wide-ranging political story.  Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci recur as the only two employees at the U.S. State Dept. who ever do anything, and it’s perpetually a mystery what they’re supposed to add to the movie besides some lame fiction of balance and really, really tepid dialogue.

Cumberbach, who specializes in playing unlikeable bastards far along the autism spectrum, really should find himself a nice Hugh Grant romantic comedy to steal next.  Here, he’s smug, condescending, detached, untrustworthy and, in a nice innovation, perpetually jetlagged.  He’s good at it, but someone’s got to teach the pony a second trick.

In the end, the film has some fascinating moments as a telling of the early evolution of Wikileaks, through the Afghan War Logs mega-story.  How much the film can be trusted in its viewpoint is suspect, but it’s a great starting point for those looking for a quick course, and willing to dig deeper on their own, once the lights come up.  For the rest of us, it’s two hours we could’ve spent drinking.