Judge Clark Douglas hopes Wikileaks doesn't leak the Benedict Cumberbatch fan fiction novel on his hard drive.
You can't expose the world's secrets without exposing yourself.
"The world needs to know!"
Facts of the Case
The year is 2007, and the place is Berlin. Daniel Domscheidt-Berg (Daniel Bruhl, Inglourious Basterds) is a young journalist with a keen interest in online activism, so his curiosity is naturally piqued when he meets Australian hacker and social activist Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock). The two quickly learn that they share many of the same interests, and they begin working together on Wikileaks, a new site devoted to spilling closely-guarded secrets in the name of taking down corrupt powers-that-be. Things go tremendously well at first, but over time a rift begins to develop between the two friends as Daniel finds himself increasingly objecting to Julian's methods.
The Fifth Estate arrives at a time when the American public is sharply divided on the subject of freedom of information. Figures like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have been passionately described as heroes and villains, saviors and traitors, dirtbags and saints. Intriguingly, the public hasn't been divided along clean-cut party lines (so often the case these days), as countless individuals on both sides of the aisle have found themselves taking all sorts of positions in the debate. As such, it seemed inevitable that The Fifth Estate would irritate a large segment of the viewing public. It could condemn Assage or present him as a heroic figure, but a whole lot of folks would be angry either way. Surprisingly, director Bill Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer decided to straddle the fence and wound up boring audiences as a result: the film flopped at the box office and received mixed-to-negative reviews.
The temptation to attempt to find middle ground with such a hot-button issue is understandable, but it never feels particularly convincing. The film applauds Assange for some of his early work and initially presents him as some sort of 21st century Robin Hood, but later depicts him in more sinister terms and suggests that he simply went too far in some instances. The argument, it would seem, is that we deserve to know more than our governments and businesses want us to but less than Assange wants us to. There have certainly been instances in which such moral indecisiveness has proven effective (the, "You're both wrong and you're both right," conclusion of Tony Scott's gripping Crimson Tide comes to mind), but this isn't one of them. By taking pre-emptive measures to ward off public outcry, Condon has neutered his film.
Perhaps recognizing the case it presents isn't a particularly exciting one, the film attempts to compensate in other areas. The opening credits are an infuriating piece of sensationalism, casually tossing out images from the Holocaust, the 9/11 attacks and other tragic moments in world history while whirring quickly between a host of computer screens. It accomplishes nothing other than letting us know upfront that this is an Important Movie About Everything. The music by Carter Burwell (usually such a distinct and reliable talent) often plunges into The Bourne Identity territory, thumping and bumping and attempting to get pulses races while characters press the "send" button. Movies still haven't found a way to successfully capture the faced-paced, distinctive world of the internet, so it's unsurprising that Condon and his team rely on the same old tricks: fast editing, lots of clicking and beeping sounds, dramatically slow loading bars, etc.
The frustrating thing is the the performances are actually quite good, particularly Cumberbatch's turn as Assange. It's not quite a spot-on impression, but he really captures the essence of the man quite effectively: the subdued urgency, the pompousness, the enigmatic otherworldliness. He's even convincing during the film's metatextual, self-satisfied, insufferable closing moments, in which Cumberbatch-as-Assange criticizes the notion of Hollywood attempting to tackle the subject of Assange's life. Bruhl is saddled with playing a bland audience surrogate, but he plays the part with greater depth and conviction than the routine dialogue (and it is so very routine) offers him. The supporting cast is loaded with talented supporting players, but the likes of Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Anthonie Mackie and Peter Capaldi come and go without making much of an impression. David Thewlis does the best he can with an exceptionally ungainly summational monologue toward the film's conclusion.
The Fifth Estate (Blu-ray) has received a sharp 1080p/2.40:1 transfer that successfully captures the film's dimly-lit world of computer monitors and keyboards. Detail is strong throughout despite a few moments of softness, blacks are deep and shadow delineation is strong throughout (a big plus given the film's subdued visual palette). The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is exceptional as well, consistently busy and immersive. While I still wish Burwell had been permitted to retain more of his own voice, his music does prove quite effective on multiple occasions. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout. Supplements are limited to three technically-minded featurettes ("The Submission Platform: Visual Effects," "In Camera: Graphic" and "Scoring Secrets"), a DVD copy and a digital copy.
Whatever you may think of Julian Assange, his life deserves a richer, deeper examination than the half-hearted dismissal provided by The Fifth Estate. A big missed opportunity.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
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