The Fifth Estate

Directed By: Bill Condon

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Stanley Tucci, and Laura Linney

As the media unanimously covered the GOP's shutdown of the federal government and their manufactured debt ceiling crisis, some news fell through the cracks this week.  Recently, a judge in New York approved the NSA's continued bulk collection of Americans' call logs, something to which I would imagine most Americans are vehemently averse.  More controversially, we've also learned this week that the NSA has been extensively involved in the drone program.  All of this reminds us that the information revolution rages on.  We must continue to fight for both transparency and privacy.  In light of this, it's a very fitting weekend for the Wikileaks drama The Fifth Estate to hit theaters.  While I'm not a fan of all their tactics, they are fierce proponents of transparency in the most absolute sense.

Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the founder of a fledgling organization known as Wikileaks.  He believes that information is the key to empowering people around the world to ensure transparency and hold their leaders accountable.  In getting this information, he believes protecting informants and whistleblowers is paramount.  Though he touts having hundreds of volunteers, Wikileaks is Assange's baby and his baby alone.  There's no room for anyone else, or their egos for that matter.  The loner Assange eventually recruits a hacker by the name of Daniel Domscheit-Berg.  He quickly indoctrinates Daniel and they begin working to uncover corruption at Swiss bank Julius Baer, known for holding $400 billion in deposits from some of the world's wealthiest individuals.

Their work on Julius Baer is a rousing success and puts them on the map.  As they continue to report information to the public, they uncover story after story and gain further notoriety.  Sometime down the road, Julian meets with Bradley Manning and receives hundreds of thousands of classified documents on military and political activities in the United States.  Recognizing that Julian and Daniel are on the cutting edge of journalism with something that could be the modern day equivalent of the Pentagon Papers, Nick Davies (David Thewlis) of British newspaper The Guardian reaches out to them in an attempt to collaborate on publishing this monumental leak of government secrets.  Unfortunately, Julian and Daniel's activities have also attracted the ire of U.S. officials, including Sam Coulson (Anthony Mackie), James Boswell (Stanley Tucci), and Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney).  Meanwhile, Daniel's work with Julian complicates his relationship with his girlfriend Anke (Alicia Vikander).

If done right, The Fifth Estate could have been a thought-provoking thriller that reignited the national dialogue on transparency in government.  The reason this isn't the case is that we have Bill Condon in the director's chair.  Fresh from directing The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2 last year, it's abundantly clear that Condon has forgotten what it means to make a good movie.  He gives us a film that's all style and no substance.  He glosses over the most meaningful parts of this powerful tale.  He tortures us with overly theatrical explorations of the simplest metaphors, particularly regarding Julian and his "hundreds of volunteers".  Lastly, Condon's thriller is devoid of any thrills.  All of this is a toxic mix that completely kills any chances The Fifth Estate ever had of being an engaging movie.

Benedict Cumberbatch has been a busy man this year.  Having given us the menacing Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness earlier this summer and immoral slave owner William Ford in best picture frontrunner 12 Years a Slave, Cumberbatch has certainly been demonstrating his versatility on the big screen this year.  Continuing to do so, he'll be teaming with an all-star cast including the likes of Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper in awards contender August: Osage County later this fall.  In the midst of all these strong supporting performances, he's managed to take on a leading role depicting the controversial figure Julian Assange.  Unfortunately, his outing as Assange in The Fifth Estate has lowered his batting average.  Though Cumberbatch delivers a fairly accurate depiction of Assange, he doesn't connect with the audience on an emotional level as either an underdog or an antihero.  Because of this, we don't have a reason to root for his success or demise.  We have no reason to care about his character. 

Fresh from Rush, Daniel Brühl delivers a bland, underwhelming performance as well, which doesn't help matters.  For his part as Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Brühl gives us a whiny sidekick who does nothing to engage the audience.  Considering the story centers on his relationship with Assange and how it corrodes everything else in his life, there are rich opportunities to explore the motivations and underpinnings of this character.  Brühl misses each and every one of these throughout the movie.

Given the fact that it's a bad movie about a figure not terribly popular stateside, The Fifth Estate seems destined to follow the real Julian Assange's predictions and fail miserably at the box office.  It certainly is a bad enough film to justify it.  I need a few glasses of Scotch to numb the pain.  The Fifth Estate gets a 0.09% rating.