The Fifth Estate (2013)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Fifth Estate</strong> (2013)

(Video on Demand, February 2014) It’s far too soon to even think about contextualizing the Wikileaks saga of 2010-2011 and Julian Assange’s place in history when so much still remains to be written and a self-exiled Assange looks spent as a significant political force. Still, director Bill Condon and writer Josh Singer do their best with The Fifth Estate, an attempt to craft a dramatic story out of too-recent world events. The film starts and ends pretentiously by spouting once more the rhetoric that the kind of open-reporting exemplified by Wikileaks is an inevitable and destabilizing evolution in the history of the world. But once it settles down and focuses on substance, The Fifth Estate becomes an exemplary demonstration of how to do a biographical film about a controversial figure: by focusing on acolyte Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s infatuation and subsequent disenchantment with Assange, The Fifth Estate avoids getting into Assange’s mind and lays the ground for a solid man-learns-better dramatic structure on which to hang the various historical events and ideas. It works, but in a familiar well-worn fashion: The film feels familiar even when it discusses the revolutionary, and the structure can’t quite sustain the amount of detail that the script feels forced to include (although the look at the European hacking scene has its moments). If this fairly ordinary film has a standout element, it’s got to be Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Assange, charismatic and repellent in turn, hitting a sweet spot between hero-making and warts-and-all reporting. The real story is considerably messier than the dramatic arc of the film (Domscheit-Berg’s actions after leaving Wikileaks will strike most as deplorable), but the Assange’s portrait seems reasonably consistent with other published accounts of the man [February 2014: including a recent damning profile by his once-ghostwriter] which is already something. The Fifth Estate famously flopped at the box-office, turning in results that were more in line with small art-house releases than A-list Hollywood productions, but the film itself is more bland than bad, and should still please anyone with an interest in the modern maelstrom of information-sharing. It’s not because the final chapter has yet to be written that we can’t look at the first few drafts of history.

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