The Fifth Estate Review | Well-Acted Wikileaks Drama Lowers The Stakes With "Accessible" Visual Style

Orlando Lens
By Nicholas Ware
The Fifth Estate is a relatively rare occurrence: a film based on real events that are still happening, a story without an ending. The WikiLeaks website was created by Julian Assange as a means to allow whistleblowers to anonymously submit documents about the unethical or illegal activities of their employers, whether those employers be companies or governments. In The Fifth Estate Assange is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, a man with as British a name as can exist. Cumberbatch's star has risen considerably in the last four years thanks largely to the BBC drama series Sherlock and Star Trek Into Darkness (in which Cumberbatch played Khan). Opposite him is another ascending star, Daniel Brühl, who has received high praise from myself and others for his recent portrayal of Niki Lauda in Rush. Both actors bring a level of quality and charisma to the screen that, unfortunately, the film itself cannot necessarily manage. You see, the main problem with a film like The Fifth Estate is two-fold. One, the story isn't over yet. Chelsea Manning, the most significant whistleblower to use WikiLeaks, has just recently been convicted and sent to prison, and the film was written and produced before these key events, and the website itself is still active. Second, the subject of The Fifth Estate is as much about information and the Internet as it is about specific characters, and information and the Internet are notoriously difficult to translate to a visual medium.

The 2001 Japanese film All About Lily Chou-Chou is another film that intimately involves the Internet in its plot. Thee characters in Lily Chou-Chou are all fans of the titular art-pop diva (a sort of fictional Japanese Björk) and post about her in message boards. Instead of investing in some cheesy cyberspace effects to show these posts, the film simply puts them up as white text on a black screen. Lily Chou-Chou lets the Internet speak for itself. While watching The Fifth Estate, I desperately wished for this film to have the same restraint. Instead, The Fifth Estate intermittently cuts to a visualization of WikiLeaks as an open, semi-surrealist office, where desk upon desk is lined up into infinity. This choice simply doesn't work, and it's one of many choices the film makes that belies a lack of faith in its audience. You see, The Fifth Estate simply does not assume itself to be viewed by intelligent movie-goers. The political, moral, ethical, and interpersonal implications of the WikiLeaks story are fascinating enough on their own, but The Fifth Estate assumes that simply presenting those conundrums tactfully and artfully are enough. The Fifth Estate wants to be a film for everyone, but assumes everyone to be dumb, easily-distracted nincompoops who need bells and whistles to keep involved in a film. Instead of delving deeply into the characters or presenting the true twists of the WikiLeaks saga, it tries to use visual style to make the film "feel" exciting, and fails miserably. It turns something fascinating into something garish, and this is a fatal directorial misstep.

Performance-wise, though, The Fifth Estate shines. Both Cumberbatch and Brühl are extremely talented actors whose skills are put to use in creating compelling men that the script only partially sketches. Brühl's work in this film is much less showy than his Niki Lauda in Rush, as Cumberbatch is given the spotlight role as Assange. He delivers just the right amount of snake-like charm and snake-like menace, mixed with a healthy dose of ego, that makes the real Assange such a captivating man; it is easy to believe that Assange is any of the things of which he has been accused: freedom fighter, activist, date rapist, or raging dickhead. This is key to making the drama of The Fifth Estate work, as the audience must feel highly ambivalent about Assange. Unfortunately, directorial choices again undermine the natural flow of the story, painting Assange as saintly early and deplorable late. Only a late, somewhat annoying breaking of the fourth wall brings Assange back to the ambivalent center in which he belongs.

My tone with this film may be overly negative, because it's certainly a good (not great) film. It's worth watching because it's exceedingly relevant to the world in which we live and features a large amount of artistic skill on camera. The problem is that the Julian Assange / WikiLeaks story is a very complicated (and incomplete) tale that is overly simplified (and sometimes needlessly visually stimulated) in its telling. I wanted this film to be a consciousness-raising one simply in the viewing of it. Instead, it's a sort of social and political teacher's aid. The audience that wants to use The Fifth Estate as a jumping-off point for deep discussion will find plenty about which to talk. However, due to the more populist choices that director Bill Condon makes, too many more will come out of The Fifth Estate without having their notions of privacy, governance, freedom of information, or personal fidelity challenged, and with a narrative like The Fifth Estate, to not challenge the audience's status quo can only be deemed a failure.

The Fifth Estate opens today at many local multiplexes. Rated R for language and some violence. Run time 2 hours 8 minutes.