‘The Fifth Estate’ Review: Here’s How to Not Make a Compelling Origin Story

By  · Published on October 18th, 2013

Editor’s note: Our review of The Fifth Estate originally ran during this year’s TIFF, but we’re re-posting it as the film opens today in theatrical release.

If nothing else, Bill Condon’s tone-deaf and inept The Fifth Estate will make plain the impact that the controversial Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks have had on modern journalism, the Internet, and whistle-blowing in general. Unfortunately, little of the depth and power of Assange’s work is conveyed via adept filmmaking, instead the facts have to speak for themselves, and it’s to their credit alone that they manage to emerge from the mess Condon’s film has made of a compelling story. Thank goodness Benedict Cumberbatch is there to make an otherwise shockingly uninspired biopic even remotely interesting.

The film begins and ends with the release of the organization’s biggest batch of documents ever – a massive collection of information provided to them by American soldier Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, including a giant batch of government cables and the so-called Iraq War Logs – with a brief glimpse into the day of the release (and the timed stories by The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel) before flashing back to a time just before computer whiz Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl) joined up with Assange’s crusade. The bulk of the film charts the rise of the WikiLeaks organization alongside the growing relationship between lone wolf Assange and eager puppy Domscheit-Berg, with only one doomed to inevitably crumble.

While Condon’s film stops long before Assange’s notorious legal troubles and his eventual asylum-seeking (information conveyed via grating text epilogue), the war log release provides necessary drama and intrigue, and Condon’s decision to use it as a framing device is one of the few smart choices he makes with his production. If only the entire film felt as vital and thrillingly made as its very beginning and very ending.

A fan of Assange’s work in Africa, tech wonk Daniel is tickled pink to finally meet the man at an industry conference, and even more thrilled when Julian deigns to let him into his inner circle. Daniel buys Julian’s version of the structure and organization of WikiLeaks without question (and why shouldn’t he?), imagining the “hundreds of volunteers” Assange claims to have, all typing away efficiently in a vast warehouse office, row upon row of desk occupied by happy workers doing the good work of their courageous leader. Inevitably, Julian reveals the true nature of his organization – yup, it’s just him, he’s even used fake names and identities to convince the woefully naïve Daniel that WikiLeaks has plenty of people about – yet Daniel continues to visualize the vast warehouse office throughout the duration of the film (even as their tiny team grows from just two as WikiLeaks starts to explode).

The imagined landscape is easily the most embarrassing and laughable element of a film rife with embarrassing and laughable elements. It’s simply moronic, and matched with cheesy graphics, flashing lights, bumping techno music, and more than a few sets that look pulled right from the production of Hackers, it makes The Fifth Estate (a film about the cutting edge of the Internet and its many uses) look like the creation of someone who fundamentally doesn’t understand the Internet. Condon’s insistence on Cumberbatch and Bruhl reading off clearly displayed chat messages that scroll across the screen during a pivotal moment in the film is just icing on this particularly embarrassing cake.

Bruhl’s performance as Daniel Domscheit-Berg is also embarrassing, and even more unfathomable considering that the film is partially based on Domscheit-Berg’s own book. Naïve, silly, and artless, Domscheit-Berg may be a computer genius, but he’s a boring character to get stuck watching, especially when he’s set up as our narrator and protagonist. Fortunately enough for Bruhl, he has his excellent work in Rush to fall back on come awards season, a stirring enough performance that will make audiences forget about his dismal showing here. Thankfully, Cumberbatch picks up the slack and slips easily into his role, turning the graceless and gross Assange into a cinematic character who is utterly enthralling to watch on screen. And yet, even Cumberbatch can’t inject enough humanity into the thinly written Assange, and it’s never clear if he’s meant to be a hero or a villain, or both, or neither, or anything at all (though we unquestionably know he’s without social manners).

The rest of the film’s cast is rounded out by plenty of talents – from Laura Linney to Anthony Mackie to Alicia Vikander to David Thewlis — but everything about The Fifth Estate is so slapdash that even they can’t rise above it. A lackluster attempt at understanding and clarifying a misunderstood organization and its equally as inscrutable creators, The Fifth Estate doesn’t so much fail to deliver information or entertainment as to synthesize it into its least progressive form.

The Upside: Benedict Cumberbatch does a really cool Julian Assange impersonation and, at one point, he dances for about thirty seconds.

The Downside: Woefully unable to humanize anyone portrayed on screen, rife with cheesy graphics and blaring techno music that somehow not only instantly date the film but instantly backdate it, laughably written and delivered lines, and the worst imagined and metaphorical landscape to hit screens in decades.

On the Side: James McAvoy was cast as Daniel Domscheit-Berg but he dropped out due to scheduling conflicts.

Click here for all of our TIFF 2013 coverage