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by Laura Leon on October 24, 2013

The Fifth Estate
Directed by Bill Condon


Desperately trying to spin a political thriller a la All The President’s Men, blended with the modern relevance of The Social Network, The Fifth Estate meanders along, continuously showing its audience images of pasty-faced computer geeks tapping keyboards and awaiting notification that a voluminous file has downloaded. In other words, it’s not very interesting.

Bruhl and Cumberbatch in The Fifth Estate

Director Bill Condon, working from a Josh Singer script, does get strong performances from his cast, notably Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange, the mastermind behind Wikileaks and, depending on one’s perspective, either a brilliant trailblazer of truth and justice, or a bizarre monomaniac. In this case, he’s a bit of both, with the former attributes brought to the fore mainly in the form of his friendship with German hacker Daniel Domscheit-Berg. In real life, Domscheit-Berg wrote a none-too-flattering book about Assange and the organization; here, he is like the computer nerd who basks in the reflected glory of the big man on campus who decides to take him under his wing. So loyal is Daniel that he allows Julian to trounce all over his personal life and to insult him until he finally, finally catches a clue and breaks free. Even then, Assange’s peculiarities continue to wreak havoc on Domscheit-Berg’s reputation.

The movie opens as Wikileaks is releasing thousands of confidential, and potentially embarrassing, even life-threatening, U.S. State Department cables, and as it crisscrosses back and forth in time and between international cities, we are expected to determine whether truth, in and of itself, is the holy grail of modern society. Assange himself comes across as awash with an almost religious fervor in toppling corporations and governments. Trouble is, much of what is uncovered within the narrative is murky and unclear, strung together with jarring digital overlays and tech jargon. Who are these people, and why should we care? Interestingly, it is only when the attention moves away from Assange and toward veteran State Department officials (Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci) and their trusted, now-endangered sources that we feel anything approaching human compassion. The movie suffers from lack of focus, as it ramshackles its way toward a lackluster finish made palatable only via the mesmerizing performance of David Thewlis as a savvy editor.