There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
The 2013 political thriller The Fifth Estate on Netflix.
Directed by eclectic, Oscar-winning filmmaker Bill Condon, and written by Josh Singer (who went on to co-write the Oscar-winning screenplay for Spotlight and the Oscar-nominated The Post), The Fifth Estate tells the story of how Julian Assange went from being an obscure, lone-wolf hacktivist to shaking up the media and the world order with his website WikiLeaks. Daniel Brühl plays Daniel Domscheit-Berg, an idealistic German computer whiz who helped extend WikiLeaks’ reach, then grew disillusioned with its founder’s recklessness and evasions. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Assange as a charismatic but ambiguous man, who unexpectedly acquires an immense power that he may ultimately be too irresponsible to wield.
Why watch now?
Because Cumberbatch can currently be seen in theaters in Avengers: Infinity War, and this Sunday night will be on Showtime in Patrick Melrose.
Patrick Melrose is a five-part miniseries, based on five autobiographical Edward St. Aubyn novels, tracing the author’s troubled youth and his journey toward domestic normalcy — all set against the backdrop of the English upper-class. Cumberbatch is one of the lead producers on the project, which was written by David Nicholls and directed by Edward Berger. He’s playing the title character at various phases in his life, capturing the dark humor and heavy struggle of a man working hard to overcome his own weaknesses and addictions, along with his memories of growing up in abusive environment.
The Showtime series (also airing on Sky Atlantic in the UK) is a rare case of Cumberbatch taking on the role of a relatively ordinary person. Much of his TV and movie career to date has been divided between playing well-known genre characters and historical figures. He’s been Sherlock Holmes, Star Trek’s Khan, The Hobbit’s Smaug, and — in theaters right now — Marvel Comics’ “sorcerer supreme,” Dr. Stephen Strange. He’s also played Richard III, Stephen Hawking, Alan Turing, and Thomas Edison — plus, obviously, Julian Assange.
Before The Fifth Estate debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in fall 2013, it was pegged as a potential Oscar-contender. Then the reviews were less-than-enthusiastic, and the movie eventually got lost in an awards season that also included such heavy-hitters as Gravity, The Wolf of Wall Street, Nebraska, American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips, Her, and 12 Years a Slave (in which Cumberbatch played a supporting role). Frankly, The Fifth Estate isn’t up to the level of those other films. But Cumberbatch gives a performance that’s very much the equal of his more high-profile work, doing what he does best: bringing deeply felt nuance to a larger-than-life character.
Who it’s for
WikiLeaks haters itching to say, “I told you so.”
There’s a reason The Fifth Estate never developed much momentum in 2013, either at the box office or with critics. The film is often corny and clunky, relying on visual flourishes to keep viewers alert, and flatly functional dialogue to keep them informed. But while Condon and Singer didn’t exactly make high art, they did more or less accomplish what they set out to do, delivering a gripping, easy-to-understand movie about a complicated subject.
Given that Assange’s public profile has changed dramatically in the past five years, The Fifth Estate is more fascinating now than it was in its own day. On the whole, the film’s take on WikiLeaks is more positive than negative, suggesting that the ideals of citizen journalism and the free flow of information are too important to toss aside because of one man’s dodgy personal ethics. There’s very little in this picture about the sexual assault charges leveled at Assange, and nothing about his recently alleged connections to the Russian government. But the movie is slightly ahead of the curve in branding Assange as a self-aggrandizing hustler.
The Fifth Estate’s cast was impressive even in 2013, with powerhouses like David Thewlis, Stanley Tucci, and Laura Linney filling some of the smaller roles. But it’s even more of a who’s-who now, given that some of the other supporting players — Anthony Mackie, Alicia Vikander, Carice van Houten, and Dan Stevens — have become bigger stars over the past few years. The same could be said of Cumberbatch, who built up a lot of buzz in the early 2010s thanks to TV’s Sherlock, and now seems to be entering a phase in his career where he’s leveraging his popularity to make both blockbuster films and smaller, more personal pieces.
Almost as much as its prescient, darkly shaded portrait of Assange, The Fifth Estate may end up being remembered as some of Cumberbatch’s best work. He treads a careful line throughout the movie, making his character sympathetic at times, without holding back in the moments when he’s meant to be pushy, devious, or egomaniacal. Throughout The Fifth Estate, Assange argues that WikiLeaks doesn’t discriminate with what it publishes, because “editing reflects bias.” Cumberbatch follows a similar philosophy. It’s a warts-and-all performance.
Where to see it
Netflix. Subscribers can then construct their own little Cumberbatch film festival, moving on from The Fifth Estate to Doctor Strange, The Imitation Game, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Atonement, and Sherlock.