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"THE FIFTH ESTATE"
(2013) (Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A small organization attempts to protect whistleblowers through its website that displays leaked sensitive documents that threaten to expose both companies and governments for their wrongdoings.
PLOT:
It's 2007 and Julian Assange (BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH) is a man who believes in social justice and thinks that can be achieved through an organization and website he's created called WikiLeaks. Its purpose is to allow whistleblowers of any stripe to post sensitive and potentially damning and damaging information about corporations, banks and even governments without fear of reprisal, thanks to the anonymity safeguards built into the system. German computer expert Daniel Berg (DANIEL BRUHL) is impressed by what Julian has created and joins the cause, sometimes to the annoyance of his coworker girlfriend, Anke Domscheit (ALICIA VIKANDER). As time passes, Daniel later brings on computer hacker Marcus (MORITZ BLEIBTREU) to beef up their online security, while Icelandic social protestor Birgitta Jonsdottir (CARICE VAN HOUTEN) also joins the cause.

Their work not only draws the attention of traditional reporters such as Nick Davies (DAVID THEWLIS) who works for The Guardian newspaper in London, but also various U.S. government types -- such as Sarah Shaw (LAURA LINNEY) and Jim Boswell (STANLEY TUCCI) who work for the State Department, as well as Sam Coulson (ANTHONY MACKIE) over at the White House -- who have growing concerns about how WikiLeak's operations could put their undercover agents and informants across the world in harm's way.

As WikiLeaks grows in popularity and influence, it's only a matter of time before its posting of leaked documents puts it firmly in the crosshairs of government powers that don't want their information divulged. That's all while its format threatens to undermine the traditional world of reporting, especially with Julian's behavior increasingly heading toward megalomania.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
The opening scene of "The Fifth Estate" establishes both the tone and tempo of what's to follow for the rest of the drama's 128-some minute runtime. In that intro montage -- one of many that permeate the film -- we see a fast progression of the history of techniques and devices utilized to deliver information to others. From Egyptian hieroglyphics up through the advent of computers, it shows not only how things change in terms of technology, but also how many changes have occurred over the ages. And the speedy delivery of those visuals also drives home the point that such changes are occurring ever faster as said technology evolves.

Of course, such information can be used for both good and bad, especially in today's age where it's becoming increasingly difficult to find an unbiased source of news that doesn't have some agenda or political ideology either blatantly slathered across the delivery or lurking about somewhere just below the surface.

Working from both "Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World's Most Dangerous Website" by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and "WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy" by David Leigh and Luke Harding, screenwriter Josh Singer (TV's "The West Wing") doesn't point any accusatory fingers in such regards. Instead, he's more interested in showing the further development of so-called citizen journalism that truly came to a head in 2010 when Julian Assange published sensitive military documents leaked by Army private Bradley Manning on the former's social justice website, WikiLeaks.

Director Bill Condon ("Dreamgirls," "Kinsey") briefly starts the film at that time and then rewinds it back three years to when the Internet publisher (terrifically played by Benedict Cumberbatch, the villain in the latest "Star Trek" film) teamed up with Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl -- also recently appearing in "Rush") to take WikiLeaks to the next level. At that time, Assange comes off as a social do-gooder who intends his platform to be a way for whistleblowers to do their thing without fear of retribution due to the anonymity factor he's built into the system.

As Singer's story progresses, however, that agenda starts to morph into something more self-serving as the man's egotism and influence grow hand-in-hand with each successive posting of sensitive material that ends up making some sort of change (mainly in the form of pointing out corruption and other wrongdoing on the parts of banks, governments and such). It's undeniably a fascinating tale in the real world (where Assange is still reportedly holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London), and the related grey themes are certainly present in this fictionalized take on the man and his mission.

Yet, as a cinematic experience, the film is something of a mixed bag, sometimes good, sometimes mediocre. As in most films about life revolving around the Internet, there's a lot of typing on keyboards and related online activity. While the filmmaker tries to get creative in such regards via lots of visual flourishes and editing in representing that, it's still scenes of people typing and such material, along with the countless montages in which that appear, get a bit repetitive and old after a while (a point that the technologically similar "The Social Network" managed to avoid, mainly thanks to David Fincher's direction and Aaron Sorkin' terrific dialogue).

The filmmakers also try to cram a lot of material and characters into those two-plus hours, resulting in much of the film feeling rushed as well as only superficial at best and often fairly fragmented and scattered at its worst. While scenes featuring David Thewlis as an old school reporter (working for London's The Guardian newspaper) obviously connect to the protagonist and his story (what with the so-called Fourth estate, the traditional press, reluctantly ceding their scoops and influence to the newcomer Fifth estate), those featuring Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie as concerned U.S. government workers feel a bit more removed.

Yes, they're tied to what Assange and his website are doing (in terms of jeopardizing U.S. agents, informants and interests around the world), but they feel a bit disconnected from the film's flow, especially since their characters don't directly impact the main character. The same holds true for an informant character in Libya as one of those interests who's featured in two scenes of potential peril overseas from the related fallout. All of that sort of feels as if it either should have been fleshed out a lot more (thus resulting in a much longer movie) or simply deleted from the final cut.

Considering that the script features a few references to and very brief flashbacks to Assange being exposed to a cult as a boy due to his mother dating one of its members, it would have been fascinating had it and Condon focused more on the protagonist's near cult like aura regarding his behavior and that of his followers. A little of that's present in terms of Bruhl's character forsaking his coworker girlfriend (Alicia Vikander in a typically thankless role), including when both are about to do "the wild thing" in bed before being interrupted by Assange.

A lot more of that would have made the film far more compelling and interesting, especially since Cumberbatch is magnetic and often electrifying playing the man. It's just too bad he's hampered by a scattered script that doesn't allow for a more thoughtful and in-depth exploration of what's obviously a complicated and compelling real life figure. While the film confirms Bob Dylan's five-decade old assertion that "the times, they are a-changin" -- at least in terms of what constitutes the press and how information is dispersed -- it could and should have been so much better painting that picture. "The Fifth Estate" rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed October 9, 2013 / Posted October 18, 2013


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