“The Fifth Estate” (2013)

by A.J. Hakari

"The Fifth Estate" poster

You can’t look up “controversial” in the dictionary without spotting Julian Assange’s mug lurking on the page. As the founder of information-sharing website WikiLeaks, his call for true transparency for all government and corporate dealings has been lauded by some, while others proclaim him a traitor for publishing sensitive, unedited documents that put people’s lives at risk. Assange is one of the modern era’s most polarizing figures, a man whose story is ideal for cinematic adaptation, albeit requiring a sizable amount of tact to be pulled off properly. Unfortunately, Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate falls short of bringing enough finesse for the job, nervously wading though the ethical quagmire that is the age of information freedom and dredging up a limp-wristed attempt to play itself down the middle.

“Sherlock” actor and object of Tumblr’s obsession Benedict Cumberbatch plays Assange, who, in 2007, was just another activist hoping to change the word. With his drive to see the dirty dealings of large companies revealed to all, it’s no wonder that he’d eventually attract someone like Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl), a restless youth with similar ambitions. Impressed with Berg’s determination, Assange lets him in on the ground floor of WikiLeaks, a page the two toil at establishing as a safe haven for whistleblowers. From exposing the illegal practices of Swiss banks to blowing the lid off of Scientology’s secrets, the notoriety of WikiLeaks proceeds to grow larger and larger with every story scooped. But as the world sharpens its gaze on the site, the more Berg sees how it has effected Assange, who allows his yearning for more high-profile information to cloud his concern for those who might pay a harsh penalty upon its publishing.

You may view Julian Assange as a hero or a villain, but it’s hard to deny that the world of WikiLeaks is not a black and white one. Though it’s true that the public should be privy to a great deal of what the powers that be have determined be hidden at all costs, special consideration should also be taken when the goings-on of those in particularly precarious positions come into question. The Fifth Estate at least makes the effort to address this gray area, initially depicting Assange and Berg as crusaders against truly unsavory behavior before being faced with what road to take when American military secrets land in their laps. Ultimately, the film picks a side, although it does so through rather cheap means. It’s not enough for The Fifth Estate to cast Assange as a boogeyman to flame right-wing fears of transparency being a slippery slope to doom; the script also makes sure it goes heavy on whatever skeezy mannerisms it can to make him look like an all-around gross person, period. The movie comes packed with low blows (eww, just look at how Assange licks food off his fingers without wiping them!), which may very well be true but don’t jibe with the “fair and balanced” front it likes to think it’s maintaining.

I don’t mind that The Fifth Estate hands down an “Assange was a creepozoid” verdict, but that so much of the process involved what boils down to grade-school name-calling is another story. Simplicity is the film’s downfall, with no image of Assange other than that of a Machiavellian power-monger delivered and Berg’s audience surrogate on hand only to call out when bad things happen, just so we’re extra sure. Condon likely wanted to capture modern history in the making (a la The Social Network), but the whole production is just so ineffective, lacking strong enough convictions for anyone to hate or love it with any real passion. Whatever ails The Fifth Estate isn’t the fault of the actors, each of whom is trying his and her darnedest to make it seem like interesting stuff is happening. Brühl’s fittingly wide-eyed Berg doesn’t fare as well considering how flatly the character comes across, but Cumberbatch finds some success in trumping Assange’s quirks and bringing out what made him such a compelling personality in the first place. The supporting cast is a Who’s Who of familiar and talented faces (Laura Linney, Peter Capaldi, David Thewlis, Stanley Tucci, etc.) all addressing one another in very stern tones, while the combined soundtracks to every ’90s techno-thriller ever made blast our eardrums in a vain assault aimed at convincing us that some serious shit is going down.

The fact that The Fifth Estate will live in Hollywood infamy not because of its politics or its stance on WikiLeaks but because of its box office is a testament to what weak sauce it really is. After its hurried rush to strike while the topical iron was still hot, that its terrible final tally (which, compared to its budget of less than $30 million, isn’t even that big of a deal) is the only thing most people will recall is proof enough of the sort of impression you can expect it to leave. Whether Mr. and Mrs. America weren’t ready to be taught about WikiLeaks or could just smell a stinker from a mile away, The Fifth Estate came, saw, and conquered few attention spans.