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Zimbio Review - 'The Fifth Estate' Goes Heavy on Style, Low on Substance

Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl in The Fifth Estate. (Paramount) Long story short: Cumberbatch works as Assange, a man maddeningly difficult to predict, but the WikiLeaks story proves too big for the film. Skip it.

The Fifth Estate will remind you of: Sherlock (TV), State of Play, The Bourne Identity, The Social Network,  

Lost amongst the flashy style of The Fifth Estate is any semblance of a coherent narrative. Director Bill Condon's film is ambitious, attempting to convey the origin story of WikiLeaks through the relationship of founder Julian Assange and his number two, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (credited as Daniel Berg here). It starts off very well, establishing the two as brilliant idealists fighting for a common cause, to change the way information is shared throughout the world. As the film moves along, however, there's no end in sight and it becomes clear Condon is in way over his head.

The saving grace of The Fifth Estate and the one reason to see it is Benedict Cumberbatch. He plays Assange with an intense focus that will remind you of the actor's work on Sherlock. He's knowingly arrogant which can be endearing and disarming in equal measures. Daniel Brühl, as Berg, is the audience surrogate. He's wholly impressed by Assange in the beginning but comes to resent the man's self-righteousness as WikiLeaks becomes a hugely influential media voice.

The two men meet in 2007 at the international hacker event, the Chaos Communication Congress. There, Assange convinces Berg to join him in his online activism. The early details of WikiLeaks beginnings and philosophies are fascinating stuff. Assange's model for a whistleblowing arena where anonymous sources could truly be protected was a revolutionary idea. He quotes Oscar Wilde. "Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth." The film does a fine job disseminating this information for the layman, creating an accessible flow of information that belies the subject matter. Although anyone unfamiliar with computers in general will be hopelessly lost.

The "submission platform" is explained as being the heart of WikiLeaks. There, the site's sources can submit information amongst a bevy of fake data. All the bogus stuff protects the real leaks and sources. Assange perpetually moves around the globe communicating with Berg via secure chat and crypto phones. As the site becomes bigger and bigger, the film is faced with tougher decisions. Josh Singer's script (adapted from Domscheit-Berg's book and David Leigh and Luke Harding's book) bounces from event to event with no awareness of time. It's in a tremendous rush and falters under the weight of all the stuff it's trying to say. It wants to be a thriller but we're not invested in anyone here enough to care (not to mention we know the ending). Assange is fully villainized towards the end of the movie as a morally-ambiguous character. People may get hurt, but Assange believes in the free flow of information and the importance of the press being above the law.

Condon is too wrapped up in making The Fifth Estate look shiny and cool. This is a highly-intellectual subject and he takes a simple-minded approach to it. The movie begins with a boring montage of news events through the years. It reverts to iMovie editing, utilizing diagonal wipes and running chat messages across the screen like a Nasdaq ticker and it's marred by an endless techno soundtrack that always seems to creep into these Hollywood movies about young Europeans. Being a computer geek isn't cool in the cinematic sense Condon tries to convey. What's cool is how smart these two guys are and how they stay a step ahead of everyone—The White House, their own sources, and even each other—while leaking some of the most secretive documents in the world. A more realistic, less Jason Bourne-type approach would've benefited everyone involved. 

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