Movie review: The Fifth Estate

By Peter Calder

2 comments
The film feels like dramatisation rather than drama.
The film feels like dramatisation rather than drama.

The medium is presumably meant to be the message in this drama about Julian Assange, which seeks to do for Wikileaks what The Social Network did for Facebook. It's visually kinetic to fault, cramming and cluttering the screen with computer graphics, including diagrams that look like flight maps.

It doesn't want you to forget that it's a drama about How Information Spreads. Data makes for dry drama, of course (the actors sometimes seem to spend more time opening and closing laptops than talking) but in an age where primary school kids file-share on smartphones, it seems slightly literal-minded, particularly as it opens with a montage of the history of news reminding us that chiselled stone tablets and papyrus scrolls were the real precursors of the internet.

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One of the few things no one needs to be told about Assange and Wikileaks is that they placed classified information in the public domain. The success of a project of this kind must be measured by what it does next and the answer here is "not a lot".

Much of the film's action is actually re-enactment of material that anyone with an interest and an internet connection has seen dozens of times.

In sharp contract to his work as writer-director of Gods and Monsters, in which Ian McKellen played Frankenstein director James Whale, Condon struggles to create plausible human beings out of the characters who people this film. Token hints about a troubled childhood just don't cut it As a result, Cumberbatch's impersonation of Assange, eerily accurate but for an uneasy Aussie drawl that sometimes makes him sound like a stroke victim, becomes an object of marvel in its own right rather than a means to something larger.

The film, scripted by Josh Singer, who was a writer on the final season of The West Wing, is based on two books, including Inside WikiLeaks by Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Bruhl), Assange's acolyte who became his critic. It depicts, in rather heavy handed terms, Assange's slow metamorphosis from an obsessive geek to an inflexibly doctrinaire borderline megalomaniac (as evidenced by his refusal to redact names from the war logs to ensure the safety of sources). It's less hard-hitting than Alex Gibney's documentary, We Steal Secrets, but it has predictably been reviled by Assange and his supporters.

Tellingly, its most human moments come in sidebar stories: Linney and Tucci are excellent as a couple of State Department apparatchiks, though they and Thewlis as Guardian journalist Nick Davies are given some banal expository dialogue and toe-curlingly pompous Big Speeches. (Capaldi, the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It, is unintentionally comic as Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger).

In the end, the film feels like dramatisation rather than drama, and it doesn't even try to get to grips with the political and ethical complexities in the whole Wikileaks story: is there such a thing as the noble lie implied by Assange's early online identity? Is the release of unadulterated, unmediated, unedited information the truth that will set us all free?

In an age when the traditional fourth estate is under such commercial and regulatory pressure and is so derided by the new media, a film about the fifth estate owed us somewhat more than this.

Stars: 3/5
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Alicia Vikander, Moritz Bleibtreu, Peter Capaldi, David Thewlis, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci
Director: Bill Condon
Running time: 128 mins
Rating: M (violence, offensive language
Verdict: Visually busy and intellectually lazy.

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- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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