When I went to see “The Fifth Estate” last night, the first thing I did was log into Facebook, check-in to the cinema and share where I was and what film I was watching. I’d be lying if I said I did this without an ironic smirk.
Wherever you stand on the issues raised by Wikileaks, whatever your political or moral viewpoint, it’s difficult to argue with the statement that Julian Assange is a difficult man to like. You may think he’s courageous, reckless, dangerous or even inspirational. But likeable? Hardly. And “The Fifth Estate” will do little to change your perception of him, largely because he is not the central character of the film. He is, by turns, an instigator, partner, friend and ultimately enemy of our real protagonist: Daniel Domscheit-Berg, played by Daniel Brühl (almost unrecognisable from his role as Nikki Lauda in “Rush”).
The story begins with the meeting of Daniel Berg and Julian Assange as they hide out in the dark recesses of an abandoned building occupied by a hacker commune. A building so stylishly and comfortably furnished and provisioned that I have trouble believing they really exist like that in the real world. Assange recruits Berg into his Wikileaks ‘team’, giving him an initiation assignment of verifying some information on the tax avoidance shenanigans of a Swiss Bank which is subsequently published onto the Wikileaks website. From there, we follow the pair on their journey as they use their bespoke submissions platform (explained with a brief bout of technobabble and conversational hand waving) to gather, verify and subsequently publish an increasingly important and controversial information culminating in the release of over a quarter of a million diplomatic cables in 2010.
The central performances are strong, and inevitably focus is drawn to Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Assange himself. The film doesn’t shy away from showing Assange’s arrogance, abrasiveness and underlying hypocrisy as a self-appointed champion of truth and justice who is perfectly happy to lie and dissemble to get his own way or protect his own secrets. Cumberbatch does an excellent job of not only capturing the voice of Assange but the physicality and mannerisms and it’s hard to believe that at one point they were considering Jeremy Renner to play Assange. Although Assange has distanced himself from the film and pre-emptively declared it ‘a massive propaganda attack’ the film stops short of demonizing him. By focussing the story on the rise of Wikileaks rather than zeroing in on the fall of Julian Assange and his asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy, it probably does him less harm than it could have, although it does briefly touches on his equivocating response to the allegations facing him in Sweden right at the end.
Everyone except Brühl and Cumberbatch are short-changed by the script and direction and when ‘everyone’ means Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney, Alexander Siddig, Peter Capaldi and the stunning Alicia Vikander, it’s hard to view “The Fifth Estate” as anything but a missed opportunity.
It desperately wants to be a tense journalism thriller or maybe a counter-culture techno-thriller and instead ends up being a fragmented, incoherent and underwhelming mishmash of both. There are attempts to inject tension and flair into it but they feel like half-hearted imitations of better films and filmmakers.
Director Bill Condon tries his best but more than once, I said to myself ‘I wish David Fincher had directed this…’ and “The Social Network” is a good yardstick against which to measure this film in terms of how you can make a gripping and fascinating film about a relatively dry and technical story. Here, we have the juicy subject matter of corporate and governmental cover-ups and wrongdoing which Condon somehow manages to render sterile and lifeless. Perhaps he hasn’t quite shaken off the two “Twilight” films he directed, where sterility, lifelessness and narrative incoherence were desirable qualities but he’s produced much better work than this in the past. Condon tries to bring the visual flair and creativity of Fincher in the early part of the film but seems to get bored with the flourishes and quirky touches and settles for clichéd scenes of scrolling text on laptop monitors and the rapid tippy-tappy sound of keyboards which would have seemed passé during the brief fad of 1990’s hacker movies.
He isn’t helped by a script which chops and changes its focus without ever letting the drama or conflict build in a way that propels the story forward or makes the audience really care which is again surprising given screenwriter Josh Singer previously worked on ‘The West Wing’. The makers assembled a great cast and with a better writer and director, this could have been up there with the likes of “Zero Dark Thirty” or “The Social Network”. Instead, it’s a bit of a damp squib; an ever-so-slightly boring sequences of earnest conversations and moodiness salvaged by the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl.
Assange will probably be pleased about one thing: there’s no hiding the truth – “The Fifth Estate” isn’t all that good.