The Fifth Estate review: Boring film despite a great cast

Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate offers the viewer a flimsy and one-sided view of the phenomenon that is Assange.

Deepanjana Pal October 25, 2013 11:18:45 IST
The Fifth Estate review: Boring film despite a great cast

When preparing to play Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in the film The Fifth Estate, Benedict Cumberbatch tried to contact Assange (who has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since June 2012).

Assange denied Cumberbatch's request in a long letter that contained a tirade against the producers of the film and their choice of source material. He also wrote, "I believe you are a good person, but I do not believe that this film is a good film."

Well, he was right.

Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate offers the viewer a flimsy and one-sided view of the phenomenon that is Assange. Assange's Wikileaks seemed to appear out of nowhere in the 2000s and its revelations took on governments and financial institutions in a way that no one had imagined was possible.

Set in 2010, when Wikileaks joined hands with The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel to release classified US military and diplomatic documents to the public, The Fifth Estate is Condon's attempt at  A Dummies' Guide to Wikileaks and its founders, Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg.

In the process, Condon does a disservice to both his actors as well as his material. In the nuance-less world of The Fifth Estate, Assange is bad, Berg is good and Wikileaks is the confused lovechild of these two men.

The Fifth Estate review Boring film despite a great cast

Cumberbatch as Assange in a still from the film. Image courtesy: Facebook

From the very first moment we see him, Assange is arrogant, callous and unpleasant, which makes you wonder why anyone would want to follow him. Berg is weak but well-meaning and his unquestioning acceptance of Assange's dubious behaviour makes him vaguely reminiscent of the long-suffering wives in vintage Bollywood, who would remain by their husbands' sides no matter how mistreated they were.

On the plus side, the film has a wonderful supporting cast. Peter Capaldi, David Thewlis and Dan Stevens (he's Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey) make The Guardian newsroom look dishy.

Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie make up the trio that shows you the CIA and White House's side of the story. Linney sparkles in every scene she's in, making you wish Condon had given her more screen time. Daniel Brühl, who plays Berg, spends most of the film looking like a puppy who's been kicked.

Cumberbitches, this is going to be a bitter pill to swallow, but your hero has failed in The Fifth Estate. He's hampered by a role that makes Khan from Star Trek: Into Darkness seem rounded and often, his attempts to imitate Assange feel laboured.

Since most of the action of The Fifth Estate happens online, in the mysterious world of coding, Condon attempts to make code dramatic by setting them in dream sequences. He presents the internet as a massive room full of office desks that are shrouded in shadows.

It's as though Condon found a set of a Scandinavian version of The Office and decided to shoot the dream sequences in there. Unfortunately, watching Cumberbatch as Assange sitting at a desk and typing while smiling into the camera creepily or seeing Brühl's Berg trash an office that doesn't exist, is no help as far as understanding code is concerned.

If you're really interested in Assange and the story of Wikileaks, then get hold of We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, a documentary by Alex Gibney.

Gibney covers the exact same period of time and does a much better job of giving you an idea of Assange's charisma, as well as his paranoia and arrogance. The documentary is more current since Condon doesn't follow Assange's story into his exile and the rape charges levelled against him.

These are lazily mentioned only in a couple of slides at the end of the film, which would be fine if The Fifth Estate was a powerpoint presentation but it isn't. Julian Assange and Wikileaks make up a tangled web. While Gibney is able to show us how Assange spun it, Condon makes mess of a fascinating story.

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