At first, I was willing to let this movie go on without my help. It was clearly a thrilling movie people would respond to. Then, seeing some of the negative reviews, aggregating a 39% on Rottentomatoes.com, I felt an obligation to defend a movie that I liked so much. The Fifth Estate (2013) is a fast paced journey through the initial successes and breakthrough of the oft-mentioned but hardly understood website WikiLeaks. It is part history, part biography in that the man Julian Assange is placed in a digital context that should be understandable to the less than tech-savviest.
When WikiLeaks began, there was little attention. Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) promised anonymity to those who would reveal the secrets of corrupt people and institutions. But “trust me, I’m an anarchist” wasn’t initially successful. It was years before the increasing number and magnitude of leaks and legal results grew until those outside the hacker clique took note. Around the time Assange was working with the Kenyan opposition movement and revealing their police corruption, he met Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl), an IT professional at EDS with admiration and a little awe for Assange. Berg then starts to work with Assange, authenticating the documents they receive and building up their network capacity.
After they reveal tax evasion by a large bank, things really take off, turning the drip into a running faucet of information, gaining public support and manpower. But all is not well. Assange’s prickly temperment, self-regard, and willingness to massage the facts to win sympathy and adherents begins to take its toll. Soon, the government begins to realize that these bloggers are far more powerful than they at first suspect. Two State Department officials, in particular, Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney) and James Boswell (Stanley Tucci), see where this is heading and do what they can to minimize the damage.
The Fifth Estate requires a lot of balancing. Those who know about Assange have to be satisfied with accuracy and those who don’t need to be brought up to date. Some people understand servers, code, and mirror sites and others start sweating when the hourglass or color wheel start spinning. Then there are those who believe in total transparency for institutions and those who believe that the world is too dangerous for that and we need every edge in the War on Terror. Then they have this man, Assange, who is too colorful to be interpreted in only one way. They nailed absolutely every one of these perfectly. There was, at the end, a statement a little too clean and supportive of the WikiLeaks venture, but was acceptable if inartful.
Director Bill Condon paces this movie far quicker than I expected. It was more like Rush than its similarly plotted The Social Network (2010) in running through dates and danger with nail-biting tension. Being a nail-biter myself, I just about did myself an injury in the final act. It will be a week before I’ll be able to bite out of boredom. Condon also gives us a very neat manifestation of the technological foundation of WikiLeaks, a room of desks covered in papers (cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler). Those more educated than I may quibble (I don’t know) but it gave me the impression without seeming oversimplified. This visualization goes throughout the film, again, eschewing exposition for action. Some, apparently, find this device irksome if they understand it at all. My view that anything that goes beyond pounding at the keyboard is an improvement and this room metaphor is a developed and considered one. At the start, we get a high speed history of communication that establishes Condon’s skill and style. Perhaps those expecting The Social Network were wrong-footed from the start.
The performances are doubted by no one. The consensus, such as it is, allows that the great Cumberbatch is in a bad movie. They’re half right. While The Iron Lady and J. Edgar were accurately described that way, The Fifth Estate blends the man into the moment to deliver the perfect biopic. And the performances by Cumberbatch and Brühl raise a good production into very good movie. The writing from Josh Singer, as alluded to earlier, did have a few clangs. But in the voices of other actors, there would have appeared to be more. Whenever Cumberbatch or Brühl or David Thewlis (as Nick Davies) or our two State Department foils come across a line loaded with meaning, they usually subvert it with their take on their character’s personality. It keeps the movie away from preaching beyond its credit. Singer took for granted our willingness to accept the costs of WikiLeaks and only went so far as to give a single, clear example to stand for the whole principle. Like so much of this movie, what was satisfactory to me was taken issue with elsewhere.
This is not the very best film of the year. It’s hard for me to describe why I don’t think it’s great. Perhaps it’s because no one is tormented, just broken in the usual ways–though the source of that breakage is unusual. Then again, I greatly enjoyed The Social Network without understanding people’s awe of that film either. The Fifth Estate is easily as good as The Social Network substituting the gentler pace for globetrotting espionage thrills (which seemed quite justified). The principle of thrillers and action films being unworthy of critical praise probably plays some role in my unwillingness to hail it as a Best Picture contender. Though I cannot claim a genuine mark against it.
It’s strange to me that The Fifth Estate was so widely mocked and 12 Years a Slave (2013) so lavishly praised. Not to say these movies are comparable on content or style, but where 12 Years a Slave had some superficial but considerable weaknesses and The Fifth Estate had none on the screen side of things. Critics are almost eager to air their own perspective on Assange and where the movie comes up short in their estimation of his story. Too much of this, too little of that, “Where was that bit about the thing I know about?” Cumberbatch, as it happens, was in both films. Some statements made me wonder whether critics realized they weren’t watching a documentary. I’m not usually sympathetic to “it’s just a movie” arguments, but this movie does a really good job of getting the conversation going about WikiLeaks and Assange, entertaining us with its portrait while arguing that the man is not the real issue. A perfect bargain.
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