The Fifth Estate (2013, directed by Bill Condon)
Julian Assange's ascent from obscure gadfly to scourge of the one percent has been well-documented, so it's no surprise to see the story get turned into an Oscar-bait drama directed by the award-winning (Oscars, Golden Globes AND Razzies!) Bill Condon and starring new hotness Benedict Cumberbatch. Focusing on the early days of WikiLeaks through to the Manning document dump and its aftermath, The Fifth Estate tries to present a doggedly even-handed portrait of Assange and his obsessive quest to bring what he considers accountability to global powers. Surely that combination of talent and ripped-from-the-headlines material can't help but result in a film that will be all over your Oscar pool ballot in March, right?
Look, there's nothing significantly wrong with The Fifth Estate. Cumberbatch is damn good as Assange (and his mimicry of Assange's voice and accent are uncanny), Inglorious Basterds' Daniel Bruhl is solid as the earnest young Assange acolyte Daniel Berg from whose perspective the story unfolds, and the supporting cast includes the likes of Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, David Thewlis and new Doctor Who Peter Capaldi, all of whom are aces. Condon, screenwriter Josh Singer and Cumberbatch neither lionize Assange nor drag him through the mud, instead casting him as a brilliant but flawed human being. Of course the decision to bail on the narrative just prior to the rape allegations that surfaced against Assange made it a lot easier for the film to adopt a neutral position towards him, and also allowed them to do a killer little post-credit “interview” segment in which Assange slags Berg and dismisses the rape charges with his usual arrogance. And in terms of the nuts and bolts of the story, they do a pretty good job of getting the details right (not that I'm a WikiLeaks expert by any means, but the film makes a point of including things like Manning getting busted due to bragging in a chat room that it would have been very easy to jettison).
Where the movie stumbles is in being too conventional. WikiLeaks was a guerrilla operation from the beginning, but Condon chooses to dramatize Assange's “army of volunteers” claim with a silly vision of a vast cubicle farm filled with faceless loyalists that the director calls back to again and again, until of course the big reveal that they all have Assange's face since they're really him under different email aliases. O noes! Naturally when Berg tries to stop Assange from crossing what he thinks is a moral line and takes WikiLeaks' servers down, we get a sequence of Berg trashing said cubicle farm, flipping desks and burning papers, because I guess the average movie-goer still doesn't know enough about computers to understand what it means when you take servers offline.
It's kind of mind-boggling to think that the standard on-screen depiction of computer tech still owes a debt to the rampant silliness of Hackers.
Overall the movie is a solid primer on Assange and WikiLeaks, and probably even-handed enough to piss off people on both sides of that particular political argument. Between that and Cumberbatch's remarkable performance, there's plenty to recommend The Fifth Estate. But it probably won't blow anyone away.
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