Thursday, 14 November 2013
FILM REVIEW: THE FIFTH ESTATE
Walt Disney Studios Films
The second WikiLeaks film to land in cinemas this year (the other being Alex Gibney's doco We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks) is a dramatic re-telling of the early days of the whistleblower organisation: when two idealistic men found each other and founded a website to expose the dirty truths of governments and corporations.
Australian computer whiz, Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), already had a criminal past of hacking into unauthorized and sensitive databases before he teamed up with German I.T. specialist, Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl). While both had a passion for exposing the secrets of the powers-that-be, Berg was the more cautious of the two, or at least that's how he is depicted here; The Fifth Estate based on a book co-written by Berg, and adapted by Josh Singer.
Assange is depicted as the 'publish at all costs' firebrand -- no redactions, no edits -- to Berg's more level-headed idealism: anonymity for the pawns -- US soldiers in Middle Eastern operations, for example -- whilst exposing the power players and those issuing the orders.
It's this latter philosophy which is shared by the editors of both The New York Times and the UK's The Guardian (Peter Capaldi and David Thewlis) who WikiLeaks decided to share the Afghanistan war logs with, which when they were released took Assange and co. (which includes portrayals by Carice van Houten and Moritz Bleibtreu) from anarchist website to major thorn in the side of the US government (curiously represented here by Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as bemused and world-weary government agents).
Directed by Bill Condon, The Fifth Estate is a somewhat political thriller although one that does not move at a cracking pace or with any real tension. What it does do is allow two talented thespians -- the seemingly ubiquitous Cumberbatch, seen everywhere of late from TV's Sherlock to the recent Star Trek sequel, Into Darkness; and Bruhl, currently tearing it up as Niki Lauda in Ron Howard's Formula 1 flick, Rush -- the opportunity to flex their character actor muscles.
Even if Cumberbatch's Australian accent isn't perfect, it's by no means distracting. He nails the particular cadence of Assange's speech and the fierceness of a man with a singularity of purpose, one which, according to Berg, became more and more susceptible to ego and paranoia as the website's power grew. But Cumberbatch's Assange remains an enigma, allowing the audience to project hero or villain status onto him as their political leanings see fit.
And in a 180 degree shift from his performance in Rush, Bruhl delivers a convincing if not entirely sympathetic portrayal (though that's what the filmmakers are going for) of an idealist whose crusade for truth and justice is hamstrung by his refusal to accept collateral damage as its by-product. Given the source material, you have to take the depiction of Berg with a handful of salt but that doesn't detract from Bruhl's fierce yet understated turn.
Most people will come to The Fifth Estate (if they come at all; American audiences certainly didn't) with their opinion of Assange and WikiLeaks already decided; Condon's film serving to confirm that opinion rather than offering anything particularly revelatory or insightful. But watched in tandem with Gibney's We Steal Secrets, you get some sense of the man and, more importantly, what he's fighting for. The message is important even if it becomes lost in this medium.