The Fifth Estate is a frustrating film that I can’t help but be disappointed in.
On the one hand, I really appreciate what the director is trying to do here – present a multi-dimensional view of the WikiLeaks event in a way that humanizes Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and empathizes with his righteous crusade for truth and then document his fall from grace in the style of The Social Network and The Great Gatsby (book) to then make something of a principled stand against him. Obviously a biopic/docudrama (whatever you want to call it) as politically charged as this one cannot give thorough documentation while remaining steadfast to pure neutrality, though this one sure tries it far too often.
On the other hand, the film is a mess that can’t seem to remain focused on exactly how it wants to portray the characters of Assange and Daniel “Schmitt” Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl). Its narrative runs rampant for the majority of the latter two thirds and can’t quite get itself into focus until the very abrupt ending. It’s not a confusing film, just one that forgets a lot of fundamentals and can’t quite zero in on an appropriate contextual tone. There are some effective cinematographic techniques that mend some of the film’s pacing issues, but they can’t fix what’s broken in the script on that very same subject.
The first act is dedicated to the motivations of Julian Assange and Daniel Schmitt as they work together, pretty much on their own, to use technology at the dawn of the digital age to protect fellow whistleblowers and serve as an outlet for their findings about corruption and wrongdoing throughout the world. Their first major takedown was the Swiss bank Julius Baer – which plays out about as anti-climatically as the Wennerström Affair in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
Regardless of that, I was mostly enjoying seeing Assange and Schmitt’s crusader perspective, but the music of the film was uninspiring. When the music is working, it’s a minor addition that only adds a little bit to the already-present fun. When it isn’t, it can easily destroy an audience’s immersion. They were occasionally trying for a modern tech-savvy vibe to go along with it, but it didn’t work.
Then the narrative rather abruptly shifts to a falling out between Assange and Schmitt that was only hinted at in the first act rather than built towards. The leaks start coming in hotter and Assange becomes ridiculously narcissistic and he eats up the triumph and glory with an insatiable thirst for more. Meanwhile, Schmitt is getting more and more annoyed with him. This is where the film goes for a mix of The Social Network and The Great Gatsby, with audiences instead just being told rather than shown that Assange is really more in it for himself than he is for the cause and he’s just a manipulative jerk who has lost touch with what he originally stood for. Meanwhile, certain mid-level staffers in the White House start reacting to the rise of WikiLeaks, but barely in a way that connected to the overall plot. This might have been okay if it was going somewhere, but it doesn’t really.
The third act is an earnest attempt to bring the film to a meaningful climax in covering the largest leakage of classified documents in American history that Bradley Manning (now Chelsea Manning) was responsible for and that WikiLeaks published. By this point, the conflict of interest is a little more in the spotlight as far as the ethics of leaking documents containing identities and personal information of people in a completely unfettered manner. Again, it was given lip service in the first act, even though it’s the core issue that makes Assange and Manning truly despicable human beings despite whatever semblance of honor their prior intentions may have had.
It’s like we were watching three short films that someone drunkenly tried to stitch together and then stick in a few sequences and lines of dialogue to remind us that we’ve been watching one movie. Any of the three acts of The Fifth Estate could have been compelling and intriguing if they were more fully developed and properly structured. Alas, it makes for a sluggish two-hour experience that can’t be saved no matter how good the acting is (though the acting is really, really good). Secondary characters are barely identified and characterized as anything more than plot devices. The first act plays around with mystery of Assange’s white hair, which uncomfortably reminded me of the Joker explaining the circumstances behind his scars in The Dark Knight, and then at the end, they bring it back when they reveal that he was part of a cult as a child growing up in Australia (this movie showcases recent events with information that is public, folks).
I don’t want to knock this film any more than I have to. This critique is sounding ridiculously harsh for a movie that isn’t all bad and actually has a few moments of brilliance. Daniel Brühl is almost as good in this movie as he was in Rush. The opening montage depicting the evolution of the press throughout all of history was a great display of visual storytelling. And there’s a Matrix-like dream sequence of a room full of computers, representing the strength in WikiLeaks’ anonymity as well as the potency of its eventual strength in numbers. Some reviewers were bothered by that, but I actually wanted to see a little bit more of it. It might have actually been a useful tool for giving the film a more character-focused theme to latch onto, and it would’ve helped with the pacing.
While I was disappointed, I’ll happily take almost a good movie over a bad one any day of the week. I just can’t really recommend it to anyone whose interest isn’t already piqued from the subject matter.
The Good: Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance, Daniel Brühl’s acting, the opening montage, the cinematography, the modest successes of humanizing Assange, and the legitimate ethical questions raised.
The Bad: The music, the lack of any interesting supporting characters, and the “mystery” of Assange’s white hair.
The Ugly: The pacing, the lack of a consistent tone, the abrupt character changes, and the film’s anti-climactic nature.