The Fifth Estate (M)

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Review byMatthew Turner10/10/2013

Four out of Five stars
Running time: 128 mins

The Fifth Estate is an engaging and enjoyable retelling of the WikiLeaks story with an astonishing central performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, but the script sticks to the surface of the story and there's nothing here that wasn't covered in the recent documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.

What's it all about?
Directed by Bill Condon and adapted from books by former WikiLeaks partner Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Guardian journalist David Leigh, The Fifth Estate begins with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) meeting and recruiting German hacker/activist Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl). Teaming up with tech expert Marcus (Moritz Bleibtreu), the men use the whistleblower site to expose the corrupt practices of the Julius Bar bank in Switzerland, which in turn earns them the support of Icelandic politician Birgitta Jónsdóttir (Carice Van Houten) and an increased media profile.

Further WikiLeaks successes include the release of a video of US soldiers killing innocent civilians in Baghdad and the 2010 publication (in conjunction with The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel) of thousands of classified documents leaked by US soldier Bradley Manning. However, the rise of WikiLeaks angers the US State Department (Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci), which claim the lives of their operatives are at risk, while Berg and an increasingly paranoid Assange eventually fall out over Assange's broken promise to redact the names of informants when he publishes the documents.

The Good
Cumberbatch is extraordinary as Assange, nailing both his Aussie twang and his distinctive delivery but also brilliantly capturing the emotionally complex contradictions at the heart of the character – on the one hand a fearless and powerful crusader for truth, on the other a raging, paranoid egomaniac. With such a powerhouse of a central performance the other actors barely get a look in, but there's strong work from Bruhl and enjoyable turns from the likes of Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as well as David Thewlis (as Guardian reporter Nick Davies) and Peter Capaldi (as Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger).

The film has strong parallels with David Fincher's The Social Network – indeed, the relationship between Assange and Berg clearly echoes that between Zuckerberg and Saverin and follows an almost identical arc. Similarly, Condon works hard to bring scenes of people tapping at their keyboards to life, employing some impressive graphic effects in the process, though the attempts at visualising the theoretical space inhabited by WikiLeaks (like a 1960s typing pool) backfire occasionally, most notably in an unintentionally hilarious shot of multiple grinning Assanges.

The Bad
The main issue with the film is that the script is content to stick to the surface of the story and never properly engages with either the Safety of Informants vs. Freedom of Information issue or the underlying causes behind Assange's apparent self-destruction.

Worth seeing?
Cumberbatch's extraordinary performance alone ensures that The Fifth Estate is worth seeing (and earns the film an extra star in the process), but this is an entertaining and engaging drama, even if it ultimately lacks depth.

Film Trailer

The Fifth Estate (M)
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Content updated: 23/08/2019 07:02

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