There was a stretch in the mid-1990s when Hollywood suddenly wised up to the fact that the internet was here to stay, and jumped on its emergence as the hook for a series of clunky, awkward “cyber-thrillers.” It was an era that gave us the likes of The Net, Johnny Mnemonic, and Hackers, movies that — ironic nostalgia aside — are best left forgotten.
Fast-forward to 2013, and movie studios have taken notice of a different technological revolution, one that has allowed whistleblowers to expose hidden truths and horrific misdeeds through the spread of classified documents. By tackling the story of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, The Fifth Estate aims to be a timely depiction of how traditional definitions of media and journalism are changing on a nearly minute-by-minute basis. But despite an impressive turn by star Benedict Cumberbatch it fails to deliver on that promise.
It starts as the story of young upstarts trying to change the world
The Fifth Estate focuses largely on the relationship between Cumberbatch’s Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg, portrayed by Daniel Brühl (Rush) as an idealistic — if naive — IT specialist that served as WikiLeaks’ spokesperson and Assange’s right-hand man. Running from the early days of their partnership through WikiLeaks’ explosion on the world stage, the film starts off as the story of two young upstarts changing the world for the better. The relationship deteriorates, however, as Assange and Domscheit-Berg butt heads in a struggle for power and moral authority, with things coming to a head around the time of the 2010 “Cablegate” leak of US military documents related to the war in Afghanistan.
If his performance in Star Trek Into Darkness felt a little dry compared to the quirky charms of Sherlock, Cumberbatch is able to take his strangeness a step further as Assange. He nails the essence of Assange’s voice and nervous energy, and is able to transmogrify his own charisma into the real man’s hypnotic pull (even when he’s giving a presentation to an empty room, it’s clear Assange has the power to inspire). But despite the allegations of hair dyeing and references to a mysterious childhood, we never get a sense of what makes the man tick. Cumberbatch’s Assange is a cipher, somewhere between prolific savant and egotistical madman, and we never see beyond the persona he chooses to put out into the world.
Heavy-handed visuals simultaneously help... and hurt
As the audience surrogate, Brühl fails to stand out in the same way. He’s simply too much of a blind-faith adherent to give the audience anything real to hold onto, and that blandness is something that affects most of the supporting cast. The Fifth Estate is packed with amazing actors — Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney feature as US government officials, Peter Capaldi (soon to star in Doctor Who) plays The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger — but for the most part they’re painfully underutilized. There’s simply very little for most of them to do, and given that the movie’s real-life events are so fresh in our collective memory it becomes a wait-and-see game of watching things unfold.
As one might expect, a good portion of the drama of The Fifth Estate involves people staring at laptops with furrowed brows, and here’s where the movie really starts to stumble. Turning an IRC chat into a dynamic visual display is no easy feat, and it’s even more difficult when trying to make a film that appeals to the broadest possible audience. Younger audiences, all too familiar with texting and IMs, can be given visual shorthand — Sherlock itself handles the texting issue particularly well — but you run the risk of losing less-savvy audiences. To tackle the problem, The Fifth Estate opts for elaborate visual metaphors whenever its characters jump online. It’s a combination of 1990’s “cyberspace” tropes — digital text is projected on Assange’s face as he chats up Domscheit-Berg in IRC — along with a “virtual newsroom,” row upon row of desks stretching to infinity, to represent all the people taking part in the WikiLeaks organization itself.
On one level, it works quite well: those that aren’t familiar with the nuances of computers, servers, or the internet will absolutely get the gist of what’s going on. But that same elaborate treatment comes across as condescending — and most certainly dated — to everyone else. Couple the visual treatment with a heavy case of Jargon Syndrome™ (take a drink for the casual ffmpeg mention used to establish the tech cred of the WikiLeaks staff) and you get a movie that feels like it’s trying too hard, losing legitimacy with savvy audiences in the process.
All of which is a shame, because the film is clearly enthusiastic about the broader cause of exposing truth in the first place. The sequence when WikiLeaks hits its stride is a clear rallying cry: Domscheit-Berg knows that the site is changing the world for the better, and Condon establishes an energy that makes one want to be part of that movement. The rapid-fire phone calls and split-second decisions as editors of The New York Times, Der Spiegel, and The Guardian decide how to handle leaked documents take on the irresistible rhythm of the spy thriller — all the while the US government is portrayed as flat-footed and downright ignorant of the forces that WikiLeaks is harnessing. The thorny moral and ethical issues that develop — the tension between full transparency and the safety of intelligence agents in the field is the most prominent — are laid at the feet of Assange the man, rather than used to undercut the positive sentiment about the WikiLeaks mission itself.
In WikiLeaks’ own takedown of The Fifth Estate script, it describes the film as “irresponsible, counterproductive, and harmful.” In truth, it’s none of those things — if only for the reason that it would have to be a much more hard-nosed and effective film in order to have that profound of an effect. As it is, The Fifth Estate sits as mild, broadly accessible fare that should start a conversation amongst those that aren’t already familiar with the story — but won’t profoundly change the minds of anyone that’s been paying attention.
The Fifth Estate opens in US theaters this Friday, October 18th.