Fifth Estate too dumbed down to matter much
Posted: October 18, 2013 at 2:33 a.m.
You have to reserve a certain amount of pity for screenwriters and filmmakers forced to make films about Internet pioneers. Movies about writers were already notoriously difficult - how the hell do you make the act of someone staring off into space and then scribbling on a pad or pounding the keys on a keyboard interesting? - but now they have to turn a bunch of slovenly, pasty-skinned shut-ins, whose eyes rarely shift from a glowing screen filled with lines of unintelligible code, into some kind of searing drama.
This is not to say it can’t be done - as David Fincher’s excellent The Social Network proved - but you have to have a superior writer who can glean precious insight out of the pathologies of the intrepid Internet trailblazer, and you need a brilliant director to make it visually arresting, otherwise, you’re stuck making limp, idiotic films like Jobs. You also have to be lucky enough to have a polarizing, engaging protagonist.
To that end, the story of Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, in fact does have some pretty serious global ramifications. And as a protagonist, the vainly debonair, white-haired Assange offers up at least some kind of visual panache with which director Bill Condon can work.
Of course, as Assange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) points out in the film, shortly after his site releases hundreds of thousands of unedited U.S. military documents and diplomatic cables - an act that instantly makes him either a champion of free speech or a nefarious, traitorous criminal depending on whom you ask - a profile of him in The New York Times seemed far more interested in the state of his filthy socks than what his small operation had just done to the greatest military force in the world.
As the film depicts him, Assange is a dedicated innovator and a vainglorious despot, making damaging decisions (such as publishing, unredacted, those many thousands of military documents,listing names of submerged operatives and deeply embedded informants all over the world) based solely on his site’s steadfast philosophy of publishing such things without any kind of oversight.
True to this version of the man - based largely on two unflattering books about Assange, one of which was co-written by his former co-conspirator, Daniel Berg - the film keeps hedging its bets as to where our sympathies should lie. Do we stick with the white-haired revolutionary, whose exposure of buried documents helped bring down corrupt banks, revealed various international voting deceptions, and exposed governments as being duplicitous and ruthless with its citizens, or do we side with the U.S. government, which found his releasing of classified documents nothing less than an act of war?
The film follows the standard format of the Internet drama: We first meet Assange as a callow, long-haired former hacker, just looking to make a name for himself and his idea for a site that protects whistle-blowers from reprisal, as he tries to engage some Berlin computer enthusiasts. With the help of one such German, the aforementioned Berg (Daniel Bruhl), a programming wunderkind, Assange begins to gain traction with his site, eventually becoming an international celebrity.
Eventually, of course, the rising popularity and influence of WikiLeaks begins to rattle the delicate infrastructure of the site, and Assange and Berg become at odds with each other. The breaking point is WikiLeaks’ biggest and most significant haul to date - Pvt. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning’s release of those U.S. documents, which Assange initially agrees to release in conjunction with The New York Times, The Globe in London, and Der Spiegel in Germany. The sticking point is the other editors and Berg insist they redact all the names. Assange, staying true to his peculiar code for the site, refuses - and releases them unedited to the world.
It’s certainly a story worth telling, and to his credit Condon does try to interject some of the larger-idea stuff (What is the nature of privacy? How can governments protect their citizens and be fully transparent?). It’s just that the film moves a bit too smoothly for its own good. It toys with more textured ideas, but remains too slick, too ready to scoot on to the next scene, to set any real hooks in you. It also has a habit of relying on pretty hoary metaphors to illustrate its more cyber-baric material (one of which is a large office space filled with desks and computers, where only Assange and Daniel reside). It might not be easy to make text messaging and programming architecture seem dramatic - just ask Fincher - but it’s perhaps even worse to dumb it down.
In the end, the film makes the usual sorts of points about personal and institutional deception and the ways WikiLeaks might have helped lead to such successful revolutionary uprisings as the Arab Spring: The film’s title refers to the new form of mass information beyond the reaches of the traditional press (the Fourth Estate). But it’s difficult to take fully seriously a film about exposing the perverse amorality of giant corporations, when it was made by a massive studio like Dreamworks SKG, whose practices no-doubt mirror the conventions of the paranoid corporate security measures to the letter.
The Fifth Estate 84 Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney Director: Bill Condon Rating: R, for language and some violence Running time: 128 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 10/18/2013