Thursday, October 10, 2013

“The 5th Estate” – Movie Review



This week, the Fall Semester of my movie class began with a screening of the new drama, “The 5th Estate”, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl.


When a Web site called WikiLeaks is created for whistleblowers to expose activities concealed from the general public, can the site be brought down by the CIA or will its creator be able to sustain it despite potential threats to its existence?


In 2007, Julian Assange (Cumberbatch) creates a Web site called WikiLeaks in order for people to anonymously report corruption, deceit and various other acts of nefarious villainy performed by businesses and governments all around the world. After revealing a scandal about a major European bank, his Web site begins to get a substantial amount of notoriety and credibility; seizing the opportunity, Assange collaborates with technical guru Daniel Berg (Brühl) to expand and maintain the infrastructure of his computer network so that it would always be sufficiently robust for as many people as possible who wanted to either view or submit contents.

But all of this new-found fame has its price. When certain things get exposed, this can tend to put at risk either the lives or livelihood – if not both – of the people responsible for the misdeeds. Furthermore, with the WikiLeaks site gaining increasing visibility worldwide, both Assange and his venture have not only his credibility but also his responsibility called into question. With a background as a mathematician, he lacks the journalistic skills – and, some would say, integrity – to accurately and appropriately report activities to the general public. When WikiLeaks reports about a video of the American military viciously killing innocent civilians in Iraq, Assange winds up on the radar of a couple of CIA operatives (Lara Linney and Stanley Tucci).

By now, Assange is convinced that both he and his Web site are performing a heroic public service and his growing number of acolytes who volunteer their services to support his efforts strongly agree. Eventually, however, WikiLeaks comes into possession of a significant number of documents from a source closely connected to the American military; the documents contain information about a wide variety of clandestine activities performed by the United States military in Afghanistan during its war on terrorism. When Assange threatens to publish all of the documents without any information redacted, will WikiLeaks be able to survive even after the release of this highly sensitive information?


Josh Singer, who wrote the screenplay for “The 5th Estate”, was certainly confronted with a daunting task when it came to this project. It can be hard enough to write a film adaptation based on a single book alone, but in this case, Singer had to base his script on two books – for “The 5th Estate”, they were “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website” by Daniel Berg and “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy” by David Leigh & Luke Harding. Distilling all of that information into a two hour film was a considerable challenge, especially since it is a true story that is still fresh in the consciousness of many people as it all went down relatively recently.

Perhaps that is the problem with “The 5th Estate” – too much information to convey in too short a time. The result winds up being a very convoluted and confusing story that’s frequently hard to follow, especially if you’re trying to keep all of the details straight. As a movie, “The 5th Estate” comes away as being a muddled tale that is barely recognizable even if you are familiar with the real story that captivated news headlines, even to this day. What doesn’t help either is the fact that the directing style – especially at the beginning of the film – is frantic, bordering on chaotic. It’s easy for a viewer to wind up feeling as though you’re in a blender, what with all the spinning camera shots and quick cuts that compete with important details trying to be conveyed through the dialog.

Speaking of the dialog, I occasionally found it difficult to understand some of the characters, especially Cumberbatch’s Assange; I’m not sure if it was the accent he affected or it was the sound system in the theater where it was viewed, but I couldn’t always make out everything that was being said. When telling a story such as this one, particularly given its political topic, it would be easy for the filmmakers to have their own agenda when recounting the events. One of the more positive things I can say about “The 5th Estate” is the fact that it appears rather even-handed; when we are introduced to Assange at the outset of the motion picture, he comes across as a sympathetic character – however, as it progresses and Assange begins to himself be corrupted by power in his own way, he comes across as crazy, evil and vindictive.


The Fifth Estate (2013) on IMDb 6.0/10850 votes


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