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Movie Review: “The Fifth Estate”

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The Fifth EstateHow do you screw up a story like Wikileaks? “The Fifth Estate” does all it can to answer that question.

The tale of Julian Assange and his anarchist activist hacking collective, which brought multiple governments and elite media entities to their knees a few years ago by leaking reams of classified data, is an undeniably compelling one-  it’s a tale of espionage and intrigue, that raises all sorts of fascinating questions about the rise of information technology, for good or ill.

“The Fifth Estate,” the new Hollywood film treatment of the Wikileaks story, makes a huge mess of all of this. Thanks to the strength of the story, it’s intriguing at times, and Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent in the lead role. The movie finds a way to dramatize people typing, which isn’t so easy. But the film is ultimately trying to do too many things, and doesn’t do a good job with most of them.

Director Bill Condon, who’s capable of much better (“Gods And Monsters” “Dreamgirls“) and much worse (the last two “Twilight” films), emphasizes parts of the story that aren’t all that interesting, while soft-pedaling or leaving out all together a lot of the best parts.

For instance, “The Fifth Estate” devotes major screen time to what went down between Assange and his sidekick Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl), with whom he later fell out. The Berg character is the protagonist and audience surrogate, but he’s a complete cipher,  and his relationship with Assange has not a single moment that’s dramatic or interesting. But because the movie is based in part on Domscheit-Berg’s memoir, it has to be front-and-center.

Other, more fascinating aspects of the saga, such as the moral implications of what Wikileaks has done, how Julian Assange got into bed with and ultimately fell out with major media organizations, as well as Assange’s own background, are given considerably less emphasis. The possibility that Assange may be on the autism spectrum or somehow afflicted with mental illness is one of many threads the film briefly raises but fails to develop.

Even more unforgivably, the sexual assault charges against Assange- which are a pretty big part of his story- are only mentioned in passing at the end. I assumed for most of the film that development would comprise the entire third act.

We also, way too briefly, see the U.S. government reaction to the leaks of the Afghanistan war logs and diplomatic cables, with Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie as executive branch functionaries who I guess are supposed to be half-hearted stand-ins for Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama. And a subplot involving a U.S. intelligence asset in Libya (Alexander Siddig) is an absolute waste of time; I have no idea why it was even included.

And top of that, there are some really weird, inexplicably awful directorial choices. There’s a huge overreliance on montage sequences; I counted at least five. One bizarre device in which the Wikileaks team appears to be working in an office with hundreds of empty desks, only they’re doing so metaphorically, at least I think- is a complete failure.

The film’s mixed success extends to the cast. While I’d have preferred Neil Patrick Harris, a true Assange dead ringer, in the role, Cumberbatch handles the role well, conveying Assange’s natural mysteriousness. Bruhl isn’t great, but Alicia Vikander, as his girlfriend, makes much more of an impression in a lot less screen time.

David Thewlis has a memorable turn as a Guardian journalist, although the great Peter Capaldi of The Thick of It and “In The Loop” is completely wasted in a small part as a Guardian editor; he has about three lines, none of which contain expletives. Downtown Abbey favorite Dan Stevens is in the movie too, but I don’t even remember seeing him.

But the ultimate failure of “The Fifth Estate” is that it can’t make itself as interesting as the story that inspired it. The movie can’t even make up its mind on whether or not it agrees with what Assange did; it ultimately spells out the mealy-mouthed conclusion that yes it’s good to expose information but gee, maybe the next guy who does it shouldn’t be someone who’s willing to put innocent people at risk, and may in fact be insane.

I can only hope the inevitable Edward Snowden movie is better.

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