film review: The Fifth Estate (2013)

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film review: The Fifth Estate (2013)

Hot on the heels (ish) of Alex Gibney’s recent Wikileaks documentary, The Fifth Estate is a dramatic re-telling of the genesis of famed whistleblower site, Wikileaks, and its Australian founder Julian Assange’s fall from grace.

Unfortunately when I say dramatic, I mean not.

There’s a multitude of problems with The Fifth Estate, not least among them the fact that it seems to be using Hackers as reference material. And the “endless room full of computers” metaphor? Fine the first time… but did we need it 10 more times after that? And as if it wasn’t poor enough, did they need to extended it? Quite frankly, I was embarrassed.

But… let’s talk about the good things first.

Namely, Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl. As a central partnership, they work fantastically well together. The two of them really try to sell the power struggle at the heart of this episode in Wikileaks history. Brühl plays the nice guy, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the tech geek hacker with a conscience. Cumberbatch then, complete with white hair, cuts an imposing figure as Assange. Aloof, obsessive and determined, you buy the control freak that is The Fifth Estate’s Julian Assange.

Whether or not that’s the real Assange is a question for another day though as this film is very much on the side of Domscheit-Berg. I have to ask, where has Daniel Brühl been all these years? I know I’ve seen him around over the years but between this and Rush (review) well, I have to think his supporting actor nomination for Rush is all but assured no?

Anyway, the fact that this film is so much on the side of him kind of leads to my first problem with it. Now, it’s unsurprising because it’s partly based on Domscheit-Berg’s book, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website but… I think the subject matter surely deserved a slightly more of a neutral standpoint. I’m not particularly a fan of Assange or Wikileaks but the film is an almost relentless personal attack on the guy. It’s a bit much.

I know Benedict Cumberbatch and all involved have been defending it… but it’s hard to see how it’s not a personal attack. That said, Julian Assange himself has been equally at fault in his defence, branding it a “… a work of political opportunism, influence, revenge and, above all, cowardice” and claiming “It is based on a deceitful book by someone who has a vendetta against me and my organisation.”

It’s certainly not an attack on Wikileaks. Yes, it depicts a power struggle at the top but does a very effective job of espousing the ideals of Wikileaks.

My other problems with it, however, are far less ideological… It’s badly structured film.

In addition to Domscheit-Berg’s book, it draws from WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by British journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding. Which means that, inexplicably, we spend part of the film watching internal squabbling at The Guardian as well as ultimately inconsquential intercontinental media squabbling. And then, for no apparent reason, we spend some time with the US government. I understand that they’re trying to place the Wikileaks revelations in context but the editing is sloppy and confusing. The scenes serve to hold back the story rather than further it.

Curious as well is the thinly veiled attempt to dip into Homeland style drama. Far be it for me to complain about Alexander Siddig in anything – I loved him on DS9, really – but someone really should have sat down and thought about that whole segment. Why are the audience watching this? Are you trying to be a thriller or are you trying to stir up some emotion? I get why the scenes are there, more “context”, but again in the flow of the movie they appear random.

Couple these constant distractions with the earlier mentioned embarrassing metaphor scenes and before you know it, the compelling power struggle you thought you were watching whittles down to an interesting hour or so in an otherwise trite and vaguely patronising 2 hour “thriller”.

All that said, if you can get past the pointless distractions and have fond memories of Hackers, there is an interesting hour there. It just depends on how badly you want to learn a (very) little bit more about Wikileaks.


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