October 31, 2013

The Fifth Estate: Skimping on Substance, Heavy on Style

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During the credit sequence that opens The Fifth Estate, virtually the entire history of information dissemination, from cave paintings to the printing press to the Internet, is condensed into three or four minutes. The average viewer might think this stylish beginning is cool, but one has to wonder what it has to do with the overall arc of the story.After all, though this is a film about the freedom of information dissemination, its focus on character’s lives is considerably more narrow — and certainly not large enough to merit an overview this expansive.

So begins the troubles with The Fifth Estate. It tries to be a thriller with keen political and technological sensibilities, in the vein of Zero Dark Thirty or The Social Network. Instead, the movie preoccupies itself with a flashy semi-chase around the world a lá Jason Bourne and makes a spectacle of the dense, thought-provoking story lurking underneath. Certain good films about the ramifications of newfound technology, like The Social Network or All the President’s Men, utilize the subtleties of real events to create a shrewd commentary on the modern world we live in. Fifth Estate minimizes the tension and thought-provoking material inherent in the WikiLeaks creation myth, in favor of cliches that are not particularly exciting or suspenseful.

And that is a shame, because the story of Julian Assange and the compatriots who helped him launch his controversial website is potentially a very profound and stimulating one. The film picks up in 2007, when Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) makes the acquaintance of Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl) and they begin work on WikiLeaks. They first target a corrupt Swiss bank with illegal offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands, which they successfully bring down. Then they busy themselves leaking identities of British National Party members, and, eventually, secret video footage of a military attack gone wrong in Afghanistan, which resulted in the loss of innocent lives. Needless to say, this incurs the wrath of the US government, and forces the two into an operation where they are constantly on the run. It soon becomes evident that we are not getting a particularly sharp or inspired account of these events so much as a perfunctory glaze over them.

In terms of historical accuracy, it’s tough to say that the film is especially faithful to the truth, especially in the way it turns facts into a padded, by-the-numbers espionage story. Assange himself has been outspokenly critical, calling the film “Hollywood propaganda,” and even mounting an active campaign against it. Simultaneous to the film’s box office-bombing release, Assange released Mediastan, a documentary of his own on the WikiLeaks formation, which in all probability dispels many of the fictitious elements of The Fifth Estate. I admit my curiosity was piqued by this documentary, purely as a moviegoer and not as a judge of the facts, because it may offer something closer to the truth than the distorted world of  Fifth Estate.

While the film is hamstrung by a lazy script and thin conception, its cast cannot be faulted. Benedict Cumberbatch is a highly sophisticated actor who has already delivered excellent turns in the series Sherlock, 12 Years a Slave and the summer blockbuster Star Trek Into Darkness. Mastering Assange’s Australian twang doesn’t prove difficult for him. Though he looks undisputedly different from the WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, that is the least of the film’s issues. We buy Cumberbatch as this character because he is a compelling actor who steadily holds our attention at all times. Oh, if only the script would give him more to work with. And Daniel Bruhl, having just delivered a top-notch performance in Ron Howard’s Rush, is saddled with an underwhelming part, which gives him nothing better to do than be constantly fearful of his and Assange’s discovery. The talented actor we remember from simply has no opportunity to show his chops.

Fifth Estate was directed by Bill Condon, a capable albeit not always dependable director, who has made good films (Dreamgirls, Kinsey) and dreadful ones (Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Parts 1 and 2). Condon was also the screenwriter of the Best Picture-winning musical Chicago, so clearly he has reserves of talent which he is either unwilling or unable to use. If he were more auteur than pop culture artist, he may have been able to navigate the many pitfalls in Josh Singer’s bore of a screenplay. He might do well to take over the writing of his next project himself rather than take on another franchise or story laden with Hollywood gloss. As it stands, The Fifth Estate left me feeling deeply unsatisfied.