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The Fifth Estate: WikiStinks

by Ethan Alter October 18, 2013 6:00 am
<i>The Fifth Estate</i>: WikiStinks

Now that the last two Twilight movies are safely in his rear view, Bill Condon is making a bid to recover some of the artistic cred he perhaps sacrificed by agreeing to close out that sneeringly-regarded (if financially lucrative) franchise. Frankly though, the "Team Edward"/"Team Jacob" nonsense that drove Twilight is more entertaining and nuanced than the "Team Daniel"/"Team Julian" conflict that's at the center of The Fifth Estate, an attempt at a modern-day All the President's Men that instead plays like a non-comedic version of the Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams-do-Watergate picture, Dick. It's amusing that the real Julian -- as in Assange a.k.a. That WikiLeaks Guy -- has been so up in arms about the movie's release when he actually comes out looking fairly good, all things considered. And besides, he can take heart in knowing that nobody is going to see this thing anyway.

The reason Assange emerges from The Fifth Estate relatively unscathed is probably due to the fact that he's played by Benedict Cumberbatch, reigning Tumblr pin-up king and one of those charming British actors capable of rendering even the most dark-hearted villains -- like, say, Star Trek's Khan -- strangely loveable. (See also: Tom Hiddleston as Loki). It's not that Cumberbatch goes out of his way to invite our sympathy; he's just so darn charismatic that it's nigh impossible to regard him with scorn and hatred, as the movie unconvincingly insists that we do… albeit after spending the first hour setting him up as a crusading defender of the truth. The real Assange has wilted in the spotlight since the massive, Bradley Manning-assisted 2010 leak that made WikiLeaks a buzzword amongst the media elite, done in by disturbing allegations of sexual misconduct and his own megalomania. The Fifth Estate inadvertently winds up restoring his mojo through Cumberbatch's star turn; his presence overwhelms the film, turning what seems to be intended as a cautionary tale about the perils of 21st century online media into a steady source of Cumberbatch-as-Assange gifs to satisfy said media.

The designated hero of The Fifth Estate isn't Assange, but Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl, doing what he can in a profoundly uninteresting role), a WikiLeaks collaborator who got in on the ground floor in 2007 and then burned the place down in the wake of the Manning affair three years later. (He wrote a book about his experience that serves as one of the two primary sources on which the film is based. Small wonder then, that he's the one we're meant to side with.) With his technological savvy, Berg had the capability to help his then-buddy Assange transform WikiLeaks from a rinky-dink operation into a web portal where whistleblowers could reveal information about corporate and political corruption without fear of public discovery.

In the movie's version of events, the friendship went sour when the media at large began crediting Daniel as a driving force behind the site, a characterization that pushed Julian's jealousy button. It's that jealousy that drives Assange to make risky decisions, like leaking those Manning-obtained political cables without redacting names that could jeopardize peoples' lives and careers… a move that earns him the enmity of the career journalists -- represented by David Thewlis's Guardian reporter Nick Davies -- who initially embraced the transformative potential of Wikileaks. Poor Thewlis is also the one forced to explain what this two-hour rush job through recent history is all about in a closing monologue that's so embarrassingly on-the-nose, it even feels the need to explain the movie's title.

Made four years after the Watergate break-in and two years after Nixon's resignation, All the President's Men managed to dramatize those momentous, still-fresh-in-the-public-mind events (with a pair of major movie stars, no less) without coming across as a filmed version of Washington Post headlines. But Condon doesn't trust the story -- or history itself -- to be interesting enough on its own terms, so he goes for sizzle and speed over the obsessive attention to the facts of the case that powered Alan J. Pakula's expose. And for a movie that strives to be up-to-the-minute, The Fifth Estate is often surprisingly retro in its depiction of computer technology, most notably in Condon's questionable decision to have Assange and Berg's online avatars regularly meet in a digital office space that's straight out of The Matrix. With so little intrigue or interest generated by the film proper, is it any wonder that Cumberbatch's effortless charisma and oh-so-fashionable white hair comes to dominate our attention? The Fifth Estate's intended message may be "Digital journalism is complicated, yo" but what viewers will more likely hear is, "Boy, that Benedict Cumberbatch is a stone-cold fox."

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