The Fifth Estate

Nov 14, 2013

It is very difficult task to turn current events into drama. The events and characters depicted are too fresh in the viewer’s mind, and almost everyone has a preconceived notion of how the characters are and how they behave.

In The Fifth Estate, director Bill Condon has a crack at doing this with the Wikileaks/Julian Assange story. It’s a “dramatic thriller based on real events”, as the blurb says, although surely the reality of the whole story is far more important than that.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work. There are some good performances of the characters as the director sees them, but I doubt if they match up to many of the pre-conceived notions of Assange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) or his offsider, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl).

Bruhl’s character is the more believable, possibly because the script is based on two books about Assange and Wikileaks, one of which was written by Domscheit-Berg.  Interestingly, there was no collaboration with Assange on the pre-production of this film; in fact, Assange reportedly try to convince Cumberbatch not to accept the role, as he felt it misrepresented his view of himself.

The first half of The Fifth Estate, in particular, is extremely annoying to watch, as a constant flurry of newspaper headlines and computer screen shot are presented at such breakneck speed that virtually none are on screen long enough to be read.  The edits flow at a frantic rate and, for some reason, all the sets seem to be ultra-modern architectural marvels.

A large room full of desks with PC screens and no one working at them is used to depict the fact that Wikileaks was not the work of a cast of thousands, but really only the two main characters and a very clever computer platform that allows people to lodge their secret documents.  In another scene, the desks all have Julian Assanges working at them.

There is one scenario dealing with the potential harm to informants, and the ending of careers in the US diplomatic service, which cleverly shines a light on the ethical dilemma created by Assange’s policy of absolutely no editing of released documents, with the premise being that the good far outweighs the harm.

Assange is portrayed as a ruthless, self-obsessed, almost tyrannical character, while Domscheit-Berg is the compliant, manipulated conscience, but as mentioned earlier, he did write one of the books on which this script is based.

Toss in a few spooks shadowing their every mood for attempted tension and this looks more like a failed thriller than a movie based purely on the facts. The documentary/drama style of the earlier film We Sell Secrets seemed to work a lot better.

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Assange’s constant condemnation of The Fifth Estate (even though he hadn’t seen it) seemed to have a disastrous effect on its American release, with underwhelming support at the 400-odd screens it opened on.  I doubt whether it will do much better here.

It is a shame this is such a disappointing effort, as the basic premise of our entitlement to know what our leaders and governments are up to, juxtaposed against the need for security, is a vexing topic of our times. It needs to be looked at in more detail, to break through our human apathy towards those things over which we feel we have no control.

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