Despite good intentions, The Fifth Estate fails to deliver on the promise of a truly dramatic thriller, and slips easily into waiting for the inevitable.
While leaving the special press screening for The Fifth Estate, a fellow film critic was overheard to say, “I think Ben Affleck would have done a really good job with this”. While that is a very specific opinion, looking back on the success of Argo and the source material he had to work with, one wonders if that might actually be true.
The Fifth Estate opens with a reverse look into the future then a slow build to the meeting of Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his soon-to-be partner Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl). Together these two, with help of what seems to be many anonymous sources, build the now infamous website WikiLeaks. The site’s main purpose is to publish secret information and classified material from whistleblowers across the world, while still guaranteeing the anonymity of their sources. Over the course of 128 minutes, we are lead all over the world to different cities and countries where Assange and his associates are tracking down stories and verifying the truth of what is really going on. Starting small by taking down a billion dollar international bank, WikiLeaks grows and starts to receive worldwide attention. In 2010 the site leaks U.S. military documents and video footage of a 2007 Baghdad airstrike, which killed an innocent journalist. It’s here where the film attempts to switch into high gear and wants to become more of a dramatic thriller than it really is.
Directed by Bill Condon, whose last two films where small indie features you may never have heard of called The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn parts 1 and 2, The Fifth Estate relies more on audience awareness than anything else. While the characters being portrayed are based on real people, the audience is introduced to them so quickly that we never really get a chance to connect. There are also multiple instances when we get a potboiler intro to what could become a very exciting spy vs. journalist cat and mouse game, but almost before it’s begun we’re on to the next scene. Rare is a film that has no problem telling us specifically where we are throughout the globe, but won’t clue you in as to who Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney are supposed to be playing. They’re on Air Force one though, so they must be some important part of government intelligence.
Both Cumberbatch and Bruhl bring realism and depth to their roles, but the two never seem to be on equal footing. Their views on what’s going on with the website are definitively polarizing. No black and white clear cut lines are defined, just a massive grey journalistic idea. While the film does it’s best to let you make up your own mind about who is right and wrong, the underlying factor of how secretive material is released is what really takes center stage.
It may come as no shock to the common viewer that governments and agencies all over the word have skeletons in their closet, that if fully revealed could cause severe damage to both themselves and those involved. As a conversation piece, this is where the film really makes its mark. Whether you happen to be a top whistleblower or just an average teenager with a daily blog, drawing the line on when and how to release such sensitive information is still a topic of serious debate and national concern.
In this modern era of Twitter and the social media blitz, one thing is certain: Depending on what you’re involved with, it might not hurt to look over your shoulder every once in a while. Or, as the film suggests, if you have a backpack which contains an encrypted laptop which may or may not contain secretive material, always take it with you when going to the bathroom.