“The Fifth Estate” is a movie about the whistleblower website WikiLeaks and its enigmatic founder Julian Assange. But more than that, it is a movie with a lot of interesting things to say about journalism, idealism, egotism, and a whole slew of other -isms thrown in for good measure.
It is also a movie that is very interested in the “Truth,” but it plays coy as to whether or not it thinks it has found said “Truth” or if such a thing even exists.
The result of cramming the movie with so many ideals is that it winds up landing somewhere between compelling and overwhelming, which leaves a lot for the viewer to work to unpack.
Fortunately, I’ve got some free time and an extra suitcase so let’s get into this.
The film “The Fifth Estate” is going to immediately remind you of is “The Social Network.” Both movies are about internet companies that go from humble beginnings to worldwide phenomena. Both movies paint the founders of those companies as visionary jerks who became increasingly isolated as they alienated those who helped them rise to the top.
As a film, “The Fifth Estate” feels slighter than “The Social Network” even though the stakes are considerably higher. This has more to do with the considerable talents of director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin than anything else, so there’s no shame in being runner-up to those guys.
And director Bill Condon and his screenwriter, Josh Singer, do some nice things here, even if they lack the laser-like focus of “The Social Network” creative team. Condon keeps the movie clipping along as it zigs and zags all around the globe and he finds some interesting visuals to illustrate the drab world of internet connectivity.
What is interesting about “The Fifth Estate” is that it is essentially playing two hands. Its weaker hand is “The Social Network” stuff about the interpersonal relationships and nuts-and-bolts that go into building something like WikiLeaks, while its stronger hand is the wide-ranging implications WikiLeaks has on world governments, espionage, and journalism.
What is even more interesting is that it plays its weaker hand better than it plays its stronger one, and much of that has to do with the strength of its two leads. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Assange as a haunted, brilliant, driven, socially obtuse force of nature.
He is simultaneously heroic and untrustworthy, which continually draws and repels his second-in-command and the movie’s moral center, Daniel Berg (played by Daniel Brul, who is also currently starring one theater over in “Rush”).
The movie crackles with energy when these two share the screen and propels the backstory forward.
“The Fifth Estate” stumbles a bit when it drifts to the deeper end of the pool and takes on the bigger, unanswerable questions. As WikiLeaks grows, it acquires more and more sensitive material until the Bradley Manning leak provided Assange with thousands of U.S. military and diplomatic documents. This pits WikiLeaks against the United States government and forces Assange into an uncomfortable alliance with traditional media outlets like The New York Times and The Guardian.
There is a whole lot more going on here, but what it all boils down to is that while we can all agree that total secrecy is a bad thing, does that mean that total transparency is necessarily a good thing?
“The Fifth Estate” awkwardly clangs around as it attempts to simply ask this question, trotting out Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as State Department officials in an effort to present the other side of the story. Important note: Wasting Tucci in a movie is an egregious 15-yard penalty that results in a loss of down.
Shortcomings aside, “The Fifth Estate” is an important movie because if you haven’t been thinking about how the internet continues to alter our perceptions of governments, privacy, and each other, then you really need to start.
“The Fifth Estate” is rated R for language and some violence.