Laura Clifford'Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.' Oscar Wilde
The term the “Fourth Estate” has been used since first coined in Britain’s parliament in 1787. In American terms, there are three “official” estates – congress, government and the judiciary – but an unofficial fourth, the press, rose to monitor these three to keep them honest. With the advent of the information age, our society moves too fast for the traditional printed media to keep pace. Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) grabbed the bull by the horns and launched his whistle-blowing site, WikiLeaks, which, along with other citizen journalism sites, became known as “The Fifth Estate.”
Director Bill Condon and company take more than a page from David Fincher’s “The Social Network” with Josh Singer’s adaptation of two books that bring to light the inner workings of the world’s eminent revealer of government and multinational corporate corruption, greed and, even, murder.
“The Fifth Estate” starts off with real news reports about the leaks that wreaked much havoc with world governments and businesses when their secrets were made public. Flash back two years to 2007 and Julian Assange is in the early stages of creating his new form of social justice. The key to his new site is its unique application that hides the identity of anyone who leaks confidential or controversial information. He gets help from Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) with the launch of WikiLeaks that has just one whistle-blower : Assange himself using false names to generate traffic on his site.
As WikiLeaks gained worldwide notoriety, Assange became increasingly paranoid and believed that his every move is being watched by people with sinister motives. When he gets his hands on 91000 US government documents, he refuses to redact the documents to protect the innocent. Assange, against Daniel’s advice, published the pilfered documents unedited. This set the stage for the contentious career of Assange and WikiLeaks.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl are the focus of this country-hopping tale and both do fine jobs in their characters. There is a bunch of supporting characters, too, but the screenplay does not develop many, except maybe David Thewlis as an investigative reporter for British newspaper, the Guardian, and is the representative of the more conservative fourth estate..
Everyone knows about Assange’s voluntary confinement in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. But, it is not for his notorious whistle-blowing that he is sought by Swedish government for prosecution. Instead, the film ends on a note about man who is on the lam from sexual assault charges. This finale deflates the build up of the whole moral issue of leaking secret information when you realize this story of heroic truth-telling is also one about a man actually running away from his more debased crimes. This takes the wind out of “The Fifth Estate’s” lofty intentions. I give it a C+.
When tech geek Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl, "Rush") meets Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch, PBS's 'Sherlock') he's impressed by the man's dedication to activism, so when Assange brings up the corruption in Swiss bank Julius Baer, the problems facing whistleblowers and the hundreds of volunteers he has hiding sources under layers of data on his website, wikileaks.org, Berg signs on whole-heartedly, donating funds for new servers to spread the power of "The Fifth Estate."
Director Bill Condon ("The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn") has successfully tackled the biopic before with his fantastical take on film director James Whale ("Gods and Monsters") and more pedestrian approach to sex researcher Alfred Kinsey ("Kinsey") (His 'Tilda,' reportedly a fictionalization of Deadline’s Nikki Finke for HBO, was never picked up). With his fourth adaptation of a true story by screenwriter Josh Singer (adapting Daniel Domscheit-Berg's 'Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website' and David Leigh and Luke Harding's 'WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy'), Condon stumbles with the first half of his film, his attempts to visualize cyberspace and those who communicate within it sadly lacking after David Fincher's masterful "The Social Network." But "The Fifth Estate" picks up in its latter half when Condon focuses on the ethical issues of exposing secret documents without redaction and the personality traits that led Assange to lie to his collaborators.
Assange, of course, has been vigorously decrying this film (his lengthy letter to star Benedict Cumberbatch was recently published in Variety) and it's easy to see why - Benedict Cumberbatch's cool take on the man on this film's page reveals a damaged youth (his mother was part of an Australian cult) turned hacker whose arrogance is fed by the liberal media until his ego explodes in such tyrannical control he'll stop at nothing to forward his agenda, including 'firing' his closest colleague.
The film is told from Domscheit-Berg's point of view and Brühl paints a devoted convert whose eyes are gradually opened. This begins when Assange floors him with the news that the many volunteers Berg is excited to finally meet via Skype are none other than himself, the huge network of WikiLeakers a fabrication for the media. Berg's girlfriend Anke Domscheit's (Alicia Vikander, "A Royal Affair") bs detector goes off earlier - she's none too happy with the way the man's demands consume her lover and his apartment. But when WikiLeaks begins to reveal more real news than the struggling Fourth Estate, Berg's qualms subside, caught up in a beer and server installation tour of Europe as their online publications become the print and broadcast professionals' news. When Berg himself receives media attention, though, referred to as the 'cofounder of WikiLeaks,' Assange begins to prickle. Berg's final disillusionment happens when Assange makes a deal with the Guardian to publish NSA documents (leaked to Assange by Bradley Manning) carefully scrubbed, then reneges on the deal, not only causing huge diplomacy issues but potentially placing many lives in danger.
Condon chooses to visualize WikiLeaks as a virtual office with sand for a floor and the sky above and the device never works. It's one thing to see scores of laptop screens subdivided with chat sessions, coding and the like, but Condon has his characters voice the text we're seeing, going against the first rule of public presentations (don't read your bullets). The techno music that accompanies all this business screams failed Fincher appropriation. The film becomes disjointed as additional viewpoints from London's Guardian staff (David Thewlis ("Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2") as journalist Nick Davis and Peter Capaldi ("In the Loop") as editor Alan Rusbridger) and the U.S. State Department (Stanley Tucci ("The Hunger Games") as James Boswell and Laura Linney ("Hyde Park on Hudson") as Sarah Shaw) are thrown into the mix. As a representative of those who are jeopardized, Alexander Siddig ("Cairo Time") is inside informant Dr. Tarek Haliseh trying to flee Libya.
"The Fifth Estate" plays like three different stylistic takes on WikiLeaks greatest hits, with seemingly important secondary characters (Moritz Bleibtreu, "Run Lola Run," as WikiLeaks server/security guru Marcus) lost in the shuffle. Condon does regain his footing to wrap, Cumberbatch excellent as Assange realizes just how much power his denigrated colleagues really have. The film is an unwieldy grab bag, but some of its contents shine through.
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