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For a phenomenon that is one of few to have completely transformed our society, there sure aren’t a lot of feature films about the Internet. The latest film that attempts to explore the web’s impact on our lives is The Fifth Estate, and it fails to live up to the task.
Directed by Bill Condon, The Fifth Estate tells the story of WikiLeaks, the real-life website that sparked some of the biggest news stories of the past decade in its release of highly controversial documents, including sensitive information about the war in Afghanistan. The film was based on two books, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website by Daniel Domscheit-Berg about his time at the company and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Hedberg.
The film’s first and second acts are painfully slow. It spends too much time establishing the relationship between Assange and Domscheit-Berg, but in a bland and uneventful way. The time spent watching WikiLeaks grow is boring, mere filler building up to the climax. The screenplay is flat, and there’s no real action until the very end of the film.
Condon struggles to gracefully incorporate the Internet—where many critical scenes take place—into The Fifth Estate. Texts and instant messages pop up constantly during the slow first act, though this technique is less abused as the film progresses. It’s hard to get any emotion out of cheesy online chats between Assange and the WikiLeaks team, and archival news footage about WikiLeaks looks equally tacky. The computer programs look like they came straight out of the 90s, too.
The film features a good cast, but they’re wasted on a bad screenplay and confusing direction. Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci are featured as U.S. government officials Sarah Shaw and James Boswell, respectively, but a lack of screen time makes it hard for these talented actors to shine. David Thewlis plays one of the editors for The Daily Mail and is captivating to watch.
The film’s leads do their best, but their performances lose merit in such a mediocre film. However, Benedict Cumberbatch excels as the moody, manipulative, and egotistical WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Fixated with the idea of publishing the truth at all costs, Assange is the most interesting character in the entire film. Daniel Bruhl portrays Daniel Domscheit-Berg as an accessible figure who gets in over his head and plays off Cumberbatch well.
He occasionally flounders in scenes on his own, but does a decent job overall.
The Fifth Estate isn’t worth the price of admission, with the rambling narrative taking away from viewers’ enjoyment. The admirable cast could have made for a great film, but they alone can’t save it. Despite all this, I suppose Julian Assange would be glad I’m publishing the truth.