When Wikileaks first came to notoriety, some praised it as a watchdog that could keep corporations and governments honest. Then it became worldwide. The leaks became even more sensitive. The site’s founder, Julian Assange, began to exhibit strange behavior from the stress. Once the site got a hold of classified documents containing the names of confidential assets pertaining to the war in Afghanistan, the United States decided to get involved. “The Fifth Estate” documents the rise and fall of that notorious Web site.
Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and partner Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) work tirelessly building Wikileaks from the ground up, toiling away for free until they start exposing the shady methods of billion dollar corporations. Soon, the CIA is (sort of) following Assange around, especially after an Army private by the name of Bradley Manning leaks thousands of documents to Wikileaks.
“The Fifth Estate” opens with a montage about the evolution of writing, from stone tablets to the printing press and newspapers, insinuating that Wikileaks ranks somewhere in that upper echelon of the history of communication. It’s not even close. Sure, Wikileaks made it a lot easier to anonymously blow the whistle on wrongdoing, but that isn’t a new concept. Reporters have always protected their sources, even going so far as to spend time in jail to keep them safe. Richard Nixon’s presidency was brought down by an anonymous source known as Deep Throat.
Benedict Cumberbatch is fine as Assange, but there’s no attempt to get to know the man and what drives him. The film depicts him as an enigma, but the script is so simplisitc there’s no effort made to get underneath his skin, leaving Cumberbatch with nothing to really do but talk in an odd voice, make speeches at events and say things like “courage is contagious.” Even the scenes where Assange and his cohorts are doing computer-related actions, the movie cuts into this silly virtual office to show the physical equivalent of what they’re doing on the computer. It’s 2013. The Internet has touched every part of life. We don’t need a paint-by-numbers example of what these people are doing.
The danger of whistle blowing doesn’t lie with the reporter, or in this case the owner of a site like Assange. It lies with the whistle blower. Assange isn’t in any true peril, at least in the film. For a truly great film about the risk of whistle blowing, check out Michael Mann’s fantastic “The Insider.”
What’s the point of “The Fifth Estate?” The events the film depicts took place recently, with the courts this year reaching a verdict on the Manning trial. There’s no perspective, which is why the film makes no attempt to understand or provide additional insight to anything that happened.
Director Bill Condon, fresh off the last two “Twilight” movies, used to be known for making smart, high-level dramas like “Kinsey.” Some of the stupid from those shiny vampire movies must have rubbed off, because “Estate” is every bit as shallow and vapid as “Twilight.” Condon is more concerned with hacker’s conferences and forced love interests than finding some sort of understanding about Assange.
The film’s ads continually ask who or what the Fifth Estate is. After sitting through “The Fifth Estate,” the only question that remains is who cares?