The Fifth Estate
Reel-Life Internet Drama

Hot off the presses and into movie theaters, The Fifth Estate is the story of the controversial website WikiLeaks, which is considered responsible for leaking innumerable sensitive documents to the public. The site’s founder, Julian Assange, has publicly spoken out against the movie and even sent an email to star Benedict Cumberbatch asking him not to participate in the film.  There are probably many reasons why Assange is against this drama, and his being portrayed as a “manipulative a—hole” has to be a primary one.

As key of a figure to the story Assange is, however, he is not the movie’s main character.  That honor goes to Daniel Berg—not a surprise, considering his real-life counterpart is one of the movie’s screenwriters.  For those unfamiliar with the players, think of Berg as the Eduardo Saverin to Assange’s Mark Zuckerberg.  While Assange was the man with the vision of what the website should be, Berg was the man behind the scenes who helped make it all happen.

The movie opens with three major newspapers—New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel—preparing to publish the “Iraq War Logs” in 2010, then flashes back to when Assange and Berg first met.  They form what Berg considers to be a partnership, but Assange still considers himself to be something of a lone wolf.  The movie follows their increasingly strained relationship as they shock the world by releasing documentation via anonymous—even to them—sources that work to shut down a major Swiss bank, expose corruption in Kenya, and bring light to atrocities in Iraq.  The movie also introduces us to a few government officials in America who must deal with the aftermath, including saving the lives of some endangered informants.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange in The Fifth EstateWhen The Social Network was released in 2010, there was a lot of talk about how it negatively portrayed its real-life protagonist Mark Zuckerberg, but the Zuckerberg camp has nothing to complain about compared to the Assange camp.  That quote from the introduction to this review (the “manipulative” one) sums up perfectly how this movie portrays the founder of WikiLeaks.  There are a few moments early on that appear to show a human side, but as the film goes on, it becomes clearer that these moments are more his way of luring people who could help him into his web.

Assange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is one of the busiest and most likeable actors working in the movies at the moment.  Having already played a Star Trek villain this summer, he’s set to appear in this and two other award-consideration movies by the end of the year, as well as voice the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit sequel.  To play Julian Assange, the actor adopts a unique Australian accent which comes close, but doesn’t quite match the real thing.  He’s good, but he’s actually the more forgettable actor in the film.

Daniel Berg is played by Daniel Bruhl, who can also currently be seen in Ron Howard’s terrific Rush.  Bruhl plays the movie’s conscience and he does it terrifically.  As much as we dislike Assange, that’s how much we root for Berg to get out from under his idol/mentor’s image.

The Fifth Estate attempts to be a cyber-thriller and comes close, but the tension is just not there.  It does not help that the movie is all over the map, both literally and figuratively.  We are constantly bouncing around between various European cities with the occasional stop in Africa and the Middle East as well.  With all these locations, the American scenes feel somewhat out of place.  It is important for the movie to show how the leaked American documents directly affects the American government, but it feels like the movie does not focus on it enough, leaving it to feel like a minor subplot rather than part of the overall story.  The movie singles out one American informant in an attempt to show exactly how these document leaks are endangering lives, but there is not enough emphasis put on this aspect by the filmmakers.

There is some good acting in The Fifth Estate and the WikiLeaks story certainly is an interesting one, especially for those of us who don’t closely follow the news, but the movie falls short of being a tension-fueled thriller.

The Fifth Estate is rated R for “language and some violence.”  The instances of violence are short and impactful, but the rating is mainly for the language.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of The Fifth Estate.