Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 8 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Violence
Directed by: Bill Condon
Written by: Josh Singer
(based on the book INSIDE WIKILEAKS by Daniel Domscheit-Berg)
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Moritz Bleibtreu, Alicia Vikander, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney & Carice van Houten
THE FIFTH ESTATE is one of those films that quickly entered and then just as quickly exited theaters in 2013. It was hyped up as a potential Oscar contender and even premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in hopes of gaining early praise. However, a middling response from critics and outright disinterest from audiences (the film debuted at number eight in its opening weekend and then vanished) did this whistleblower thriller a massive disservice. THE FIFTH ESTATE is a movie for our current age regarding information available online and serves as an important analysis of a touchy subject. That subject is WikiLeaks and its two founders (Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg).
In 2007, a German journalist (Daniel) meets an Australian hacker (Julian) at an international hacker convention. The two quickly form a friendship and Daniel expresses interest in working with Julian. The pair begin constructing a website called WikiLeaks. This site is devoted to releasing confidential information (regarding corruption or other hidden problems from all over the world) to the general public. However, WikiLeaks becomes a double-edged sword as it becomes difficult to maintain anonymity for the whistleblowers releasing the information and tensions between Julian and Daniel rise. When they receive a profound amount of secret military information from U.S. soldier Bradley Manning, Julian and Daniel are forced to make wise, critical decisions that could make or break their site, their lives and the lives of many others…
Before he was nominated for playing Alan Turring, Benedict Cumberbatch wonderfully brought the twisted personality of Julian Assange to life. The best way of describing this person (I won’t call him a character, because he really exists) is to call him a pompous dickhead that has done us a great service. The fact that Assange was so opposed to this film (as well as direct quotes from him) sort of hint to Cumberbatch’s portrayal being somewhat accurate (sort of like Mark Schultz’s opposition to his portrayal in the recent FOXCATCHER). You have to admire certain aspects about Assange, but also find other actions to be repugnant and hard-headed. He’s a deeply flawed genius of sorts and that’s what Cumberbatch flawlessly brings to the screen. Daniel Bruhl is fantastic as Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Daniel admires Julian’s cause, but also (as his girlfriend points out) seems to ignore the flaws in the man until it becomes startlingly clear that Daniel may have to break his whistleblower union with Assange. Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney, and Stanley Tucci all appear as U.S. government officials and (though slightly underused) make the most of every scene they have. David Thewlis is equally stellar as a reporter for The Guardian who sympathizes with Julian and Daniel’s cause.
What I really admire about THE FIFTH ESTATE is that it remains neutral on its topic. It shows that while people have a right to the truth, there might be limits on how much information should be readily available. In one tense confrontation between the WikiLeaks founders, Daniel points out that by revealing informants’ identities they are betraying “sources fighting for the very thing that we’re fighting for.” It’s sort of depressing that THE FIFTH ESTATE bombed so badly in theaters and failed to make an impact with audiences, because it’s a stellar conversation starter about complex issues. I hope that the upcoming SNOWDEN doesn’t befall the same fate.
Another really impressive aspect that THE FIFTH ESTATE brings is in its style. What essentially boils down to a story of different people having conversations and typing on computers is brought to life with flare and creative visuals. For example, we’re given an imaginary endless office that we see Julian and Daniel working in throughout the film. Add a good soundtrack as well as fantastic-looking locations (we don’t merely hear about stuff happening in other countries, we see pieces of it happening) and you’ve got yourself one hell of a whistleblower thriller. THE FIFTH ESTATE is one of the biggest hidden gems to come out of the last three years and I highly recommend it. If you’re watching it with friends, plan for a long night because you’re bound to get into a lengthy conversation about the touchy subject matter and mixed messages afterwards.