After a detour into the world of Twilight movies, director Bill Condon has returned to serious movies with The Fifth Estate. In a lot of ways, by telling the story of Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), his relationship with friend Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl, Rush) and WikiLeaks, all the while digging into all kinds high-minded moral and political issues, you can’t get much more serious than The Fifth Estate. Thankfully, Condon approaches the movie like a thriller, so we’re never bogged down by stodgy self-importance.
However, this also poses a problem for the film, since Condon’s strong suit isn’t thrills and urgency. What’s left is a film that feels like it’s trying to fit in with some idea of what a modern globetrotting thriller should look like, and made by a filmmaker who has lost his own stylistic identity in the bargain. Diving into a world of computer-hacking revolutionaries, the film’s shot with the kind of shaky-cam, faux-urgency that only a lack of tripod can supply. The soundtrack’s full of hip electronic music, something that might be less distracting if it didn’t feel tacked on by someone who isn’t Condon. (Maybe I’m being ageist and our 57-year-old director is a huge fan of Australian psychedelic rock.) There are moments that follow unfortunately close to the cyberpunk camp of Ian Softley’s Hackers (1995), with its computer monitors projecting images on the character’s faces, or the way Condon tries to turn the Internet into a physical space. Embodying the Internet as three-dimensional space (in this case, as endless rows of desks in open air, reminiscent of 1999’s The Matrix) has always been tricky, and usually comes off as corny — and it’s no different here.
Even with these distractions, the film isn’t ruined. When The Fifth Estate is using its brain, it works well and has surprising depth. Condon and TV writer Josh Singer have made a movie that neither honors nor vilifies Assange, whose ideals of social justice, transparency and truth in a digital age are held to high standards. But at the same time, there’s his close friend and WikiLeaks partner — not to mention the film’s conscience — Daniel, who sees Assange’s ego and vanity firsthand, and questions the dangers an uncensored truth may create. Much of the climax involves the leak of U.S. diplomatic cables on the Afghan war and Assange’s refusal to redact names and information, ignoring the real-life consequences this information might have on those identified. Assange’s purpose and goals are seen as noble, but his selfishness, squirrelly personality and unwillingness to compromise are ugly drawbacks.
This moral complexity is really what makes the film, even if it’s undermined by some blatant summarizing in the film’s last scene that comes across as a bit patronizing. This perhaps personifies the movie — it does a lot right, but nothing spectacularly so, often faltering thanks to a director who’s lost his luster. Viewed more as an intelligent, often entertaining political thriller and less as an important film on important topics, The Fifth Estate is worth a look. Rated R for language and some violence.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemas, Regal Biltmore Grande