★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Much like WikiLeaks – the organization whose story it’s telling – The Fifth Estate is an interesting and often revelatory suspense-drama that almost collapses under its own weight, thanks to its unorganized, unfocused and jumbled structure.
WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, are worthy subjects: this generation’s Washington Post and Woodward and Bernstein, with a dash of unreliability and flame-throwing. The film, based on the tell-all book by Assange’s second-in-command, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, relays as much of the news organization’s story as it can in 128 minutes, from the early days of reporting on corruption in a Swiss bank to the earthshaking 2010 revelations about the Afghanistan War. Along the way, we learn about the website’s news-gathering process and the battle between traditional media – the Fourth Estate – and this new brand of journalistic anarchy.
Despite the intriguing history lessons, The Fifth Estate is essentially a biopic of Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl). Don’t worry, Cumberbitches, your hero Benedict does a pretty good job. Brühl, on the other hand, is effective but not so memorable. The two actors provide insight not just into their characters’ jobs but into their lives and personalities too, such as why Assange’s hair is white. However, it should be noted that Assange himself has called the film everything from unfair to downright inaccurate, so you might want to take that hairy revelation with the same amount of skepticism you would some WikiLeaks stories.
What should be crystal-clear, however, is that director Bill Condon’s production is a hot-off-the-press mess. Condon, whose career has lurched wildly from the highs of writing the Oscar-awarded Chicago to the lows of directing the Razzie-grabbing Twilight series, seems so intent on re-creating the frenzied feel of the events that he adopts an equally busy style of filmmaking. In the process, characters we don’t understand or sympathize with – such as the normally excellent Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci, as U.S. State Department officials – become yesterday’s news the second they exit. Even more disappointing is Tobias Schliessler’s frenetic cinematography, which is a lesson in ADD, despite some memorably surreal visuals and the stunning opening credits. Yes, there’s something interesting to see here, if we could focus for five seconds.
The last piece of the puzzle that doesn’t quite fall into place is Josh Singer’s screenplay. Like any overly ambitious piece of journalism, it tries to pack in as much as possible, which leads to some genuine, and intelligent, suspense. Unfortunately, like the film’s other elements, the script also lacks cohesiveness and clarity.
But perhaps that was Condon’s plan all along: to throw everything onto the screen in an uncensored and seemingly haphazard hodgepodge. Like Assange, he wasn’t about to redact any of his ideas or bother with that pesky process called editing that traditional news outlets, and films, use. Viewed in that light, Condon succeeded in creating a style worthy of its subject while failing at traditional, coherent filmmaking. Maybe Assange should be happy with the movie after all.
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