Give a man a mask, and he will tell the truth. This is the message fearless WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) passes along to his colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl) years before the online news site became as infamous as it stands today. DreamWorks Pictures’ “The Fifth Estate” reveals the quest to expose the deception and corruption of power that turned the Internet upstart into one of the 21st century’s most fiercely debated organizations. While Director Bill Condon’s (Dreamgirls) adaptation of the book “Inside WikiLeaks” is by no means a bad movie, plenty could have been cut in the editing room. For a film that is being marketed as a thriller, “The Fifth Estate” feels incredibly slow and plodding rather than quick and fast-paced
The story begins as Assange and Domscheit-Berg link up and agree to become underground watchdogs of the privileged and powerful. With little more than a laptop and a WiFi connection, the two create an online platform that allows informers, snitches and moles to anonymously leak covert data, therefore shining a light on the dark recesses of government secrets and corporate crimes. In no time, WikiLeaks is breaking more controversial news than even the world’s most legendary media organizations like The New York Times and CNN. But when Assange and Domscheit-Berg gain access to the biggest trove of confidential intelligence documents in U.S. history — over 300,000 Afghanistan Military papers — they find themselves at odds as they struggle with a simple moral question: Is the world a better place when there are no secrets?
Cumberbatch and Bruhl each excel in their roles as the two founders of WikiLeaks. Cumberbatch — who is also in this week’s “12 Years A Slave” — more than just looks like Julian Assange, the UK actor perfectly adopts his Australian accent and social mannerisms. Assange is autocratic in his business tactics, but unmistakably awkward socially. Cumberbatch shifts between these two conflicting character traits with ease.
Bruhl is equally as versatile. With all of the insanity that goes along with having Assange as a colleague, Domscheit-Berg is tasked with keeping everything running smoothly. Bruhl is unobtrusive in his role. When heightened emotion is needed, the German actor is more than capable of hitting the mark, but for most of the film, he takes the back seat to all of the craziness of his partner’s performance.
Whereas Bruhl’s performance is inconspicuous, the film as a whole is incredibly opinionated. Recent tech-wiz films like “The Social Network” and “Jobs” place the audience in the metaphorical shoes of the megalomaniacs themselves, however “The Fifth Estate” takes a sidelines perspective. The audience follows Julian Assange’s rise to ‘Time’ Magazine cover story fame through the eyes of his partner Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Unlike his co-founder, Domscheit-Berg is a humanist. Deep down, he believes that some aspects of a person’s privacy should be kept out of the limelight. Assange, on the other hand, remains steadfast in his ways: publishing everything as is. As a viewer, we are slowly manipulated into believing that Assange is a bad guy just because Domscheit-Berg has a change of heart halfway through the film. Because he is not the film’s protagonist, we never see Assange physically or mentally change his ideology. We are, however, led to think that he is a tyrannical psychopath because of the scenes screenwriter Josh Singer (The West Wing) chooses to show us.
Despite this screenplay flaw, Condon presents the audience with plenty of visually stunning material — none better than the allegorical office the film’s leads travel to whenever they sign into WikiLeaks. The creative ways Condon handles text messages and conversations that occur primarily over the Internet are equally as enjoyable to watch. Never before has instant messaging been as taut and thrilling as in “The Fifth Estate.”
Unfortunately, all of this visual flair cannot make up for this overburdened script. Unfulfilling romantic relationships, a certain lack of characterization in the film’s two stars, and an overly self-indulgent fake interview where Cumberbatch breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience all detract from the intensity of the movie.
In a world without “The Social Network,” a picture like “The Fifth Estate” would stand a better chance with audiences. Sadly, David Fincher’s Oscar Winning film has cornered the tech mogul docu-drama market. Bill Condon’s flashy tale simply doesn’t stack up.
By David Morris
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