‘The Fifth Estate’ comes off pretentious and heavy-handed
Published: Monday, October 21, 2013
Updated: Monday, October 21, 2013 22:10
Anyone who follows the news will recognize that cults of personality have the tendency of developing around political dissidents responsible for leaking sensitive information to the public. Figures like Edward Snowden have their lives diluted down to a single act of supposed defiance and are hailed as the courageous martyrs for a greater cause, often with little regard to what they choose to do with their notoriety after the fact.
“The Fifth Estate,” Bill Condon’s latest movie on the Wikileaks controversy that occurred three years ago, attempts to accurately portray one such personality. The story is told through the point of view of Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl), a Nick Carraway-style narrator that joined Wikileaks in 2007 and became irrevocably attached to both Wikileaks itself and its founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Though Daniel is given scraps plot to work with, it is the more famous Assange that gets most of the spotlight.
Unfortunately, most of that spotlight is squandered by the movie’s insistent air of pretention. The fact that Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer wanted to portray a nuanced version of the controversial Assange is understandable, but the execution of such a portrayal is muddled by a lot of pointless self-absorption. This preoccupation with psychodrama renders the whole film into an abstraction, something that is not helped by a heavily bloated cast. In the attempt to humanize all the members involved in the leaking process, the movie overreaches. As a result, the characters are largely one-dimensional and the movie is saddled with a plethora of subplots that are only somewhat related to the main story.
The cast’s largely tepid portrayals of their characters do not help matters either. “The Fifth Estate” has a sizable list of talent, such as Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie, but by some fault of the script none of their characters seem to be relatable despite the rather important problems that they face. Bruhl as Daniel Domscheit-Berg valiantly attempts to come off as Assange’s concerned partner in the whole affair but is burdened by a poorly written lines as well as a tacked-on romantic side story. Cumberbatch as Assange could be commended for his committed depiction of an eccentric and maniacal man, but that depiction rings too closely to the actor’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes for it to be truly groundbreaking. The only member of the cast who was truly excellent was David Thewlis, whose portrayal of Guardian reporter Nick Davies had a certain amount of brooding charisma.
For all its faults, “The Fifth Estate” manages to adequately guide the audience through the tense events in 2010. The scenes depicting the actual muckraking done by the organization are filled with unapologetic excitement. As this is very much a technology movie, Hollywood hacking techniques (such as typing very fast) abound. Where the film falls short is when it attempts to break out of Hollywood conventions with pretentious moral philosophizing, which, sadly, is all too often.