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Part of the problem with creating movies about this age of the internet is that the actual physical act of sitting and typing on a keyboard isn’t very exciting to film.  By focusing on the reason the protagonists are interacting online, most filmmakers work around this, hence bringing drama and hopefully an entertaining viewing experience.  In The Fifth Estate, we are shown lengthy scenes of the two main characters sitting laptop to laptop, literally less than two feet away, but furiously typing to each other in a chat room without speaking.  The rest of the film is equally scintillating.

The computer nerd is special breed that deeply understands the internet is increasingly the globe’s primary means of communication, information and commerce; a fact which subsequently gives rise to those who are able disturb it for their own gains or simply for giggly power trips.  It’s folks like these who gather on occasion to celebrate their nerdiness and what makes them so much smarter than other, less internet-disposed folks.  One such geek is Daniel Domscheit-Berg, so keyed into computer culture that he knows many hackers by their real names, which is how he meets Julian Assange, a ghostly pale figure, strangely anti-social, who fairly burns with a self-righteousness that appeals to Daniel’s sense of middle-class malcontent.  Assange’s screeds about justice and government transparency and fairness around the globe draws Daniel and several more followers and soon Assange’s whistleblower site, WikiLeaks has an actual (unpaid) staff.  The premise of the site is that insiders who report on corruption can do so with perfect anonymity, while Assange sends one of his skeleton crew - Daniel- to verify the details as best they can (seemingly without concern that none of them seem to have experience or legal education to ensure proper diligence).  As the site grows, the attention from the claims made fuels Assange and his merry code-makers, partly driven by injustices ignored by the major media that his site forces the public to address and partly that this is his baby, controlled by his hand heedless of anyone’s opinion, including Daniel’s.  Assange knows something of the risks he’s taking, but only grows bolder as the stakes go higher and more sensitive information comes to WikiLeaks.  When thousands of files of classified information about United States diplomatic efforts and the Afghanistan War is supplied to him by a US military serviceman, Assange knows it’s something he can’t handle alone.  He is still mistrustful of the printed press and reluctant to share with the UK newspaper who will assist in deciphering all the information and then print it for their piece of the glory.  Assange takes neither the newsmen’s advice nor the warnings of his crew to redact the names of various US informants and active personnel who depend on the secrecy of their covers to survive.  Clinging to his immutable stance that nothing presented on WikiLeaks will ever be edited, Assange risks lives, precarious global negotiations and active war operations, and the United States government that earlier dismissed the site as a serious threat now must scramble to save their people suddenly put at risk.  Assange goes on the run from those who would have him arrested as a traitor, but not without igniting a worldwide debate about transparency amongst governments and the role of journalism when it comes to maintaining that transparency.

Based on the memoirs of Daniel Domscheit-Berg, what could have been a pretty sharp David and Goliath story about the place of a small voice of dissent in a big sea of journalistic nodding heads has all the life boiled out of it.  Where more could have been made of the effects that WikiLeaks had with regard to opening the media’s eyes to international injustices, the primary focus is placed on character interaction and it just isn’t that interesting.  Daniel is portrayed as Assange’s fanboy, getting wound up in the excitement and ego of believing that he’s making a difference, but it comes off as nothing more than some visceral thrill, like, “Look how many hits we got!”  We are given a completely throwaway romantic subplot for Daniel in which he is predictably forced to choose between his girlfriend and the lure of Assange’s newsmaking.  Whether due to the hollowness of the script or the thinness of the character, Daniel Brühl plays Domscheit-Berg completely one-note; a hyperactive chipmunk, with no highs or lows even when Assange insults his parents or invades what was supposed to be a nice night in with the GF.  Even the big meltdown between Daniel and Assange over the former’s resistance to publishing the dangerous cables carries no sparks.  Normally a bright spot in any production, Laura Linney (resembling Hillary Clinton’s little sister) and Stanley Tucci (resembling Stanley Tucci) appear as CIA agents whose sensitive and secret operations are directly affected by the WikiLeaks exposure.  We are given a strange sub-subplot hinting at Linney’s possible romantic involvement with a Libyan contactor endangered by Assange’s actions, but the film’s failure to go through with the harsh consequences the operative would have faced under Kaddafi’s government, only shows the script’s refusal to court real controversy.  Elsewhere in the film, Anthony Mackie’s eyebrows do all the acting as a worried Obama advisor let down by the CIA’s lack of Assange intercept, and Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey is quite fetching as brunet reporter from the UK Guardian

Director Bill Condon clearly tried to go the Danny Boyle route with loads of loud, irritating German techno blasting through way too many scenes, lots of quick-cut editing and hand-held cameras to feign a feeling of kinetic electricity.  Problem with that is you have no kinetics if what the people are mostly doing is sitting still.  Not even silly tricks like superimposing text over the screen or giving us some kind of inner world montage is going to elevate this flat script, nor will the wobbling from right to left done by the filmmakers who desperately try to not to offend Assange’s critics or supporters.

So all we’re really left to celebrate is that amazing Benedict Cumberbatch feller playing Julian Assange.  Cumberbatch (Cornering the box office in his second film this week - See our 12 Years a Slave review) unfortunately proves that having all the talent in the world cannot drag up a swampy drudge of a script.  In one of too many clumsily expositional lines, Assange claims to have been tested for autism.  Like many of these casually reeled-off tidbits about the intriguing provocateur (including several explanations for his trademark white locks), it’s brought up and then dropped, but Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the newsmaker as a flat-eyed, sharp-tongued narcissist, makes it one of the few conjectures (of the many) that rings true.  One wonders if Assange’s determination to stick to WikiLeaks no edit policy when it’s plain people will die is really born out of altruism, nihilism or the inadvertent sociopathy of being unable to relate to anyone’s feelings or situations but his own.

Flat, boring, and the very antithesis of a thriller, the film lets its audience down when the story of the birth, rise and global controversy of WikiLeaks and its founder could have been a fascinating story.  Even Benedict Cumberbatch’s magnificent, show-stopping octopus dance - which will surely be the rage at all the hottest clubs - cannot breathe any life into The Fifth Estate.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

Oct. 18th, 2013





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