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The Fifth Estate – Movie Review

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The Fifth Estate – Movie Review

Rating: B+ (Very Good)

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In this day and age where information is so widely-spread, it is impressive that there are some documents that are kept secret even with search engines that locate almost anything. With WikiLeaks, Julian Assange seemed to crack down government forces and release top secret files for the public to consume. His depiction in The Fifth Estate is that of somebody who has no second thoughts about revealing everybody’s else private information, no matter the potential consequences for himself or others. However, the greatest irony is that Assange, as portrayed in Josh Singer’s screenplay, likes to remain hidden and his personal issues kept to himself. Whether or not this is an accurate representation of Assange, it is that fascinating discussion of privacy that fuels the film.

Singer and director Bill Condon make the interesting decision to not present The Fifth Estate as a typical Julian Assange biopic, but rather as an ensemble piece. Assange’s cohort Daniel Berg receives more screen time than Assange as the audience basically sees the tale of WikiLeaks unfold mostly through his eyes. This seems like the logical step, seeing as Berg’s book was one of the source materials used for Singer’s screenplay. He serves as our eyes and ears through the murky underbellies of this world-changing website. The relationship between Assange and Berg is continually tested, as he shares Berg’s ideas, but not his way of handling these controversial document leaks. In a clever move on Condon’s part, we venture into Berg’s imagination and his own vision of WikiLeaks, an office of multiple desktops throwing out code and precious information to the world. In reality, the webmasters jump from country to country, hotel room to hotel room. Thankfully, this never becomes confusing as handled by Condon’s skilled direction.

In another subplot throughout The Fifth Estate, the film takes a turn into All the President’s Men territory. The Guardian’s collaboration with WikiLeaks is a fascinating venture into how newspapers might tackle controversial material. There are lines that should not be crossed and major publications need to respect them. Again, there is that contrast with Guardian reporter Nick Davies constantly doing battle with Julian Assange. Do they publish 100% of the material and risk lives or only put most of the leaked information into the newspaper? There is such a thing as journalistic integrity and it is a form of communication that has the ability to topple empires, if not handled in a delicate manner.

Davies is the rational person, while Assange is the cold and unemotional one who has no qualms about overthrowing regimes and putting governments in stand still. Nonetheless, however we may feel about those up on Parliament or Capitol Hill, those are still people. Is there an obvious bias on the filmmaker’s part? Certainly, as Assange’s portrayal is less-than-rosy. However, it is necessary in creating that conflict. Daniel Berg is certainly not shown in the most positive light, either, as he alienates his girlfriend all for this white-haired computer whiz. The Social Network would have been plenty boring if Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin were portrayed with no personality flaws whatsoever.

Interestingly, the most fascinating and involving subplot does not even directly involve Julian Assange. Dealing with the American government agents trying to solve the issues brought forth by the document leaks, these sequences are very gripping and it’s a disappointment they are given the least attention by Condon and Singer. One moment, which almost plays out like a scene from Argo, is very tense and clearly showcases the possibly deadly repercussions that WikiLeaks could bring with its un-editing policy. The consistently great Laura Linney brings a wit and intelligence to her character and plays off very well with Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie. This subplot begins a good hour into The Fifth Estate and every minute spent with them is fantastic. Thus, it is a shame more screen time wasn’t devoted to their segments.

The rest of the actors are also perfectly chosen. Benedict Cumberbatch, probably the best of today’s rising young actors, delves very well into Julian Assange. While he gets the accent down, he does not merely rely on imitation and immerses himself into the role of this unemotional hacker. Most of the time I forgot I was watching the same actor who currently portrays the modern-day Sherlock Holmes on television. Daniel Bruhl brings the necessary sympathy to Berg and him and Cumberbatch have the right amount of chemistry, even as their friendship gets more rocky and complicated. David Thewlis is also a welcome casting choice for Davies as is Dutch actress Carice van Houten playing Icelandic parliament member and WikiLeaks supporter Birgitta Jónsdóttir. There is not one member of the ensemble that does not convincingly recite Josh Singer’s smart dialogue.

Julian Assange has decried The Fifth Estate as a hatchet job and in an interesting act of defiance, the filmmakers have even put his statements about the film into the screenplay verbatim. That level of cleverness and creativity is all throughout the movie, which allows this to become more than a standard biopic. It is difficult to gauge how much this will appeal to those not already interested in the subject, thus it does not have quite the universal enjoyment of David Fincher’s superior Facebook tale The Social Network. However, as somebody who does find the topic of WikiLeaks to be fascinating, The Fifth Estate was a compelling and engaging look into the world created by Julian Assange, who is all about revealing everyone else’s secrets, but his own.

Review By: Stefan Ellison

THE SCENE


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