I’ll admit that I didn’t know as much as I should about Julian Assange going into “The Fifth Estate.” When I got home from seeing the movie I had to look up interviews and found out that he is as dull in interviews as Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of him. I guess kudos to Cumberbatch for getting that part right, but it doesn’t make it interesting to watch.
“The Fifth Estate,” directed by Bill Condon, is another look at another egotistical “genius” or “madman” who did something on the internet that changed the world. The man in question is Julian Assange, who brings on a German IT guy/hacker named Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl) to join his team at WikiLeaks to help him check sources to verify that classified documents submitted to his site. Over the next two hours you learn about Assange’s strange tendencies and his belief in revealing anything regardless of the cost. More than Assange though, you see Domscheit-Berg’s emotional and moral struggle as he tries to balance between right and wrong and the risk involved. The problem is that this film is partially based on Domscheit-Berg’s book, “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website,” and so it feels like the film is leaning more toward this being about Domscheit-Berg, but it is supposed to be about Assange. So there are characters that peripherally float around and come into Domscheit-Berg’s life like his girlfriend, parents, and a hacker friend, but for the moments you have with them there seems little point to them being in the film other than to show a moment where Assange reacts poorly in their presence.
This film is blessed with riches when it comes to casting. David Thewlis, Dan Stevens, and Peter Capaldi are all on staff at UK’s famed “The Guardian” newspaper. While Thewlis is given much to do supporting Assange as investigative reporter Nick Davies, and I picked up that Stevens’ character was an editor, only with post-screening research did I figure out that Capaldi was playing the newspaper’s editor.
The most engaging performance was Laura Linney as U.S. Under Secretary of State Sarah Shaw, followed closely by Stanley Tucci as Deputy Secretary of State for Political Affairs James Boswell, and Anthony Mackie as White House Deputy National Security Advisor Sam Coulson. Unfortunately they don’t arrive in the movie until much later than you wish once they do. Their talents are underutilized and there are moments for the characters, especially Linney’s, where I wondered, “What was the point of that?”
“What was the point of that?” was a question I asked a lot regarding characters and moments. The film begins with a scene where Daniel is frantically trying to get ahold of Julian as he repeatedly uses the hacker version of IM to ask Julian if he’s there. It cuts to Julian choosing to ignore Daniel’s attempt to contact him and then the film cuts to 2007. That moment of Daniel’s frantic effort is never returned to in the film so I still don’t know what context that moment was in.
The symbolic use of a dreamlike office to represent the online working environment of WikiLeaks will be considered genius by some and for others they will see it as an attempt to create a “For Dummies” visual of telecommuting. The look and style of the movie was reminiscent of a “Bourne” film, but the edge of your seat, non-stop action of Jason Bourne has been substituted with the slow, convoluted and bad techno music filled sort of story of Julian Assange, a man with a somewhat interesting backstory who is incredibly boring to watch.
What I did love about this film was the opening montage of the history of communications. It gave me high hopes for this film that were not realized.
Do I know more about WikiLeaks than I did before I went into the film? Yes. Am I wondering if the book was better? Yes. Do I think Julian Assange is more interesting to read about than to see in interviews or through an actor’s portrayal of him on screen? Absolutely. In the end, the drawn out focus on one character, Assange, and his eccentricities instead of getting to the impact of WikiLeaks and its fall out was the wrong strategy for the release of this information.