Film review: THE FIFTH ESTATE, from Built For Speed

Slotting somewhere between The Social Network and the recent Steve Jobs biopic, The Fifth Estate dramatises the creation of Wikileaks and the relationship between its Editor in chief Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the man who helped him create the site, German computer wiz Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl).

The film traces their increasingly ambitious and provocative attempts to expose what they regard as corrupt governments and corporations by providing a platform on which whistle blowers could anonymously post classified documents and other secret communications.  Initially united in their cause, which involved exposing massive tax haven banks and corrupt governments in Kenya, their relationship soon begins to fracture.

The film, which is based partly on Berg’s book Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website (2011), paints Assange as a brilliant visionary with a righteous cause but someone who, allegedly damaged by experiences in the cult known as The Family, had become a “manipulative” and “callous zealot”.  The film also suggests that Assange resented the idea of Berg receiving any adulation.

This film would have been fine as a taught 90 min biopic with a sprinkling of international intrigue and tech paranoia. Stretched out to just over two hours, though, it begins to drag. The film attempts to energize the story with a twitchy visual style presumably designed to mimic the hyper-speed information flow of the new millennia media but this just results in the film flitting annoyingly between characters, computer screens and news reports.  Consequently, so much (often indecipherable) information is hurled at us that the film just becomes confusing.

Director Bill Condon tries to ramp up the drama with spy thriller tropes including the use of international locations, noirish cinematography, ominous music, large scary-looking men in suits constantly watching Assange and Berg and people jumping on an off trains French Connection-style.  This approach, however, can’t overcome the fact that this story, is mostly about people tapping away at computer screens.

Despite the story’s dramatic limitations the performances are compelling.  Cumberbatch is remarkable as Assange perfectly capturing the Australian accent as well as the nuances of Assange’s voice such as his droll monotone, halting phrases and portentous pauses.  Cumberbatch doesn’t just impersonate Assange, he invests his portrayal with distinct often dislikeable characteristics.  Mercurial, calculating and even sinister, Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Assange at times recalls The Joker in The Dark Knight and he even makes cryptic comments about the origin of his white hair the way The Joker did about his facial scar.  Daniel Bruhl is also terrific.  As in the formula one film Rush, Bruhl distinguishes himself as the less glamorous half of a phenomenal duo. Here he’s more sympathetic than he was in Rush as he bears the brunt of Assange’s tirades.  Among a large and distinguished supporting cast, David Thewlis stands out as Guardian newspaper journalist Nick Davies who desperately wants to publish many of Wikileaks’ astonishing revelations.  As he presciently suggests, Wikileaks marks the beginning of a journalistic revolution but one that still needs to observe the rigorous principles of even-handed journalism.

There are some remarkable moments in this film but the deluge of information and considerable length ultimately make it a bit of a slog.

Nick’s rating: Three stars.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Bill Condon.

Release date: 14th Nov 2013

Running time: 128 mins.

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