“The Fifth Estate” – Review by Daniel Rester

The Fifth Estate Review

by Daniel Rester

             WikiLeaks has become one of the more powerful websites of the 21st century, aiding whistleblowers in dropping secrets about various organizations. And its founder, Julian Assange, is quite the character. Such ingredients could, and should, make for good juice for a dramatic film. Yet the first “based on a true story” reenactment of the events surrounding the site and its founder, The Fifth Estate, mostly squanders such an opportunity.

            What it didn’t get wrong was its casting. Assange here is played by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who simply nails the part. The actor is so strong here that he nearly elevates the entire film. As Assange, Cumberbatch disappears behind the silky white hair and uses an Australian accent and Assange’s interesting demeanor. The actor applies certain looks and movements that make the character more human than the muddled script likely allowed him to be.

            Also effective is Daniel Bruhl, who plays Daniel Domscheit-Berg (who wrote the book Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website (2011), which the film is partly based on). Domscheit-Berg is actually made as the protagonist of the film as he joins Assange in making the site huge. With Rush and now this film just this year, Bruhl is certainly proving himself as a skilled actor. He and Cumberbatch have palpable chemistry here, showing the two characters as an oddball team.

            The rest of the film never matches Cumberbatch and Bruhl’s work, and it’s too bad. The first big issue is Josh Singer’s script. It just simply tries to cover too much ground while simultaneously setting things up in a routine manner (and while seeming pretty one-sided). With its by-the-numbers tech-thriller plotting and unneeded subplots, the screenplay results are awkward and dissatisfying. The script works best when it focuses on its two lead characters and their relationship, however, adding in some great touches of backstory and emotion at times.

            Director Bill Condon does try to focus the story and relationships at points, but he also uses a lot of tricks that simply don’t add much. The helmer uses such things as editing swipes and metaphoric settings for flavor, yet it comes off as gimmicky. His treatment of dramatic situations and dialogue is mostly okay, yet there always seems to be a certain spark missing in his presentation of the diegesis.  

With moving shots, rapid editing, and techno music assisting Condon’s efforts, the movie certainly has a quick pace and a bit of energy, but it just isn’t enough to spice things up (especially as the movie passes the two-hour mark). All in all, Singer and Condon’s work transforms the interesting material into something quite dull.

Estate is certainly ambitious, but it probably should have taken a more subtle and focused route in telling some of the story of WikiLeaks. The film provides tons of scenes that simply just underline what was said in previous scenes, wasting the talents of such supporting players as Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Staney Tucci, and Laura Linney; and at other times it just stumbles. With some trimming and straightening, I believe there is a great film calling out in there. But this just isn’t it, and Cumberbatch and Bruhl — along with the audience — deserve better.


Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: C+)  

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