MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Fifth Estate’

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The subject of “The Fifth Estate” is Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, an advocate of radical online transparency famous for posting endless troves of classified government information online for all the world to see. One problem with those massive dumps is that it can be hard to find the relevant information within. It’s a problem the movie shares. “The Fifth Estate” mines its subject life for information, but never finds a meaningful story to tell.

Like so many movies inspired by recent history, “The Fifth Estate” doesn’t reveal so much as it restates. It’s a condensed-for-drama highlight reel that covers Assange’s rise from lonely hacker activist to media sensation and global governmental irritant.

We see Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) through the eyes of Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl), an early acolyte and partner in Assange’s data-dumping crusades. Early, little-noticed projects include the publication of documents revealing corruption in Kenya, and tax shelter systems used by Swiss banks. By the movie’s end, Assange is making front-page headlines by dumping massive troves of secret American government communiques onto the open Internet.

There’s far too much information here, and it’s not well organized. If Mr. Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer have a theory of Assange it’s in the form of a question: Julian Assange — creep or messiah? Notably this is essentially the same dichotomy that drove Mr. Condon’s equally frustrating 2004 film “Kinsey,” about pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey.

It’s just as unenlightening the second time around. The chief problem is that he conflates the man with the movement, thus allowing himself to sidestep any serious consideration of Assange’s ideas in favor of questions about whether Assange was a weirdo and/or a digital revolutionary.

Appropriately enough for a movie built on a dichotomy, the dialogue comes in just two modes: self-important mythologizing, and expository jibberish. The exposition is often impenetrable, but it’s the mythologizing that’s the worst.

Mr. Singer’s overinflated dialogue gives many of the scenes the feel of a particularly grating TED talk. In the first twenty minutes, we hear that Assange is “fighting for freedom, for privacy, for the right to remain concealed in clouds of code,” that his work could be “the key to a whole new form of social justice” and that ideas like his were what helped topple the Berlin wall.

Mr. Condon, meanwhile, attempts to convey the underground hipness of Assange’s world, and the hacker scene he comes from, with a grab bag of stylistic tricks — including a ceiling-free, infinite “room” full of computers meant to represent Assange’s computer network — and a soundtrack punctuated by thudding electronic music. But rather than giving the movie an edgy vibe, it feels like desperate overcompensation for the fact that much of the action consists of little more than pasty nerds typing on computers. As a pasty nerd who spends most days typing on a computer, I can assure you it is just not all that interesting to watch.

The movie is partially saved by its uniformly excellent and watchable performances. Mr. Berg and Mr. Cumberbatch give Mr. Singer’s clunky dialogue occasional bursts of electricity, and David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Alicia Vikander all do solid work in exposition-heavy supporting roles. But their strong work doesn’t make this ill-conceived data dump of a movie worth watching.

1/2 

TITLE: “The Fifth Estate”

CREDITS:Directed by Bill Condon; screenplay by Josh Singer, based on books by Daniel Berg and David Leigh & Luke Harding 

RATING: R for language, sexuality

RUNNING TIME:128 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


 

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