Remember back when "The Social Network" came out in 2010, and it made computer jargon, programming and other seemingly dry behind-the-scenes stuff seem exciting and thrilling? Fincher and company gave the proceedings a rich, dark mood, while Sorkin’s Oscar-winning script was predictably snappy, but also smart and insightful.
Bad news, folks; that’s not "The Fifth Estate," the much-ballyhooed biopic of lauded and loathed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The real life Assange, still currently still in asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, has already spoken out against the project, calling it inaccurate and getting his revenge by leaking the script a month before its release.
"I do not believe that this film is a good film," Assange said in a letter to star Benedict Cumberbatch. Say what you will about the man’s ethics or politics, but he’s dead on when it comes to this inert number.
When the audience first meets Assange (Cumberbatch), he’s awkwardly, if effectively, presenting WikiLeaks at a conference to a smattering of disinterested hackers and computer junkies. His goal of justice and accountability, however, captures the attention of Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl, "Rush"). The two join forces and start muckraking their way to fame, taking down corrupt dictators and banks until they come upon the biggest leak of all: a collection of thousands of classified government war documents.
They decide to post the leaks with the coordination of multiple landmark newspapers. The U.S. government – played by Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie and Stanley Tucci – would prefer they didn’t.
As a history lesson, "The Fifth Estate" works decently enough. TV vet Josh Singer’s script and Bill Condon’s direction speedily run the audience through as many notable events in the history of WikiLeaks as possible. The problem is that, like many of the history lessons you may remember doodling through in school, it’s not very interesting.
The screenplay blandly regurgitates the key events onto the screen like a Wikipedia page, without any real insight on the moral complexities of the site or its polarizing founder. When the script tries, its on-the-head diatribes about history, journalism and the importance of the site come with an audible clunk.
Even when the massive dump of wiretaps and leaks eventually comes, there’s no tension or sense of the stakes. It’s mostly just government officials complaining and bickering in the office. With all of the movie’s pretensions of significance – from the exposition-heavy dialogue about things "the wooorld neeeeds to knoooow!" to even just the opening credits, assuming WikiLeaks’ place in the history of communication – it sure makes WikiLeaks feel trivial.
The focus is instead on the testy relationship between Assange the self-important, slightly paranoid ego and Berg the conscience. It’s not a poor choice, especially considering the two quality performers in the leads. It’s just poor execution. Singer and Condon never get anywhere beyond the surface of the enigma that is Assange, so the story just ends up damp and predictable. Any thoughts or opinions you have going into the theatre about the man or his website won’t have changed much on the way out.
Condon (who deserves credit for directing the last two "Twilight" films and coming out alive) brings a visually unremarkable style to match the unremarkable script. His few attempts at adding some creative spark to the story end up making "The Fifth Estate" feel even clumsier.
The most glaring example is a reoccurring visual of an imaginary ceiling-less office filled as far as the eye can see with desks. Considering how much the image is used, the filmmakers must really like it. They’re the only ones, as it’s a confusing and cheap visual metaphor.
Another sequence – an online chat discussion between Assange and Berg – looks like something out of a techno-paranoia thriller from a decade or two ago (I’m thinking "The Net" or "Antitrust"), with a mess of digital words scrolling over across the screen and across characters faces. It's a trick that dates a movie that already feels old. The fact that voiceover narration blatantly reads their chats to the audience while the text is on screen only adds to the embarrassment.
To be fair to Condon, he keeps the film moving forward quickly, and the cast is quite good as well, especially Cumberbatch. He does his best to take Assange – who, with his long white hair and aloof voice, already looks like an ’80s action movie baddie – and make him more of a character than a cartoon of either villainy or journalistic integrity. But that can’t save "The Fifth Estate" from being a lively movie that never actually comes alive.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published April 26, 2015
Adapted from the 2005 memoir of the same name, "True Story" plays like an intriguingly well-paved road to nowhere. The movie certainly presents plenty of interesting pieces: two actors - Jonah Hill and James Franco - playing against type but perfectly cast, a post-Oscar nomination Felicity Jones and a bizarre real story. Part by part, it's fairly engaging, but when it comes time to add everything together, the final sum is as nondescript as its title.
Published April 23, 2015
Lord Huron doesn't quite trek to the stars like it said it might on its new album "Strange Trails," but the folk band is still going places. Its dreamy musical vistas have nabbed a big audience -- so much so that demand moved the band's return to The Pabst Theater on Saturday, April 25 over to the Riverside. Before then, I got a chance to chat with frontman Ben Schneider about "Strange Trails," the stories that come with it and going to space (at some point).
Published April 22, 2015
I've had some less than flattering things to say about found footage in recent years, calling it things like "the worst of today's low budget Hollywood filmmaking" and "a thing that shouldn't exist anymore." So let's all take a moment and marvel at the fact that in the new techno-horror flick "Unfriended," the found footage-esque visual gimmick not only works, but it's the best part of the movie. The result isn't much for scares, but it is scarily entertaining.
Published April 21, 2015
Welcome back to Unceremonious Overqualified Movie Dump Theatre. The most recent entry: "Child 44," which features an impressive roster of stars but was cut down to a mere 510 theaters just a few weeks before its release. It was a bad omen and unfortunately an accurate one as well, as the apparent lack of confidence from the studio equals a lack of quality on the screen.
Published April 20, 2015
The Maine is currently on the road right now, touring in support of its latest album "American Candy," released just last month on March 31. Its current tour lands at The Rave on Wednesday, April 22. Before then, OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to chat with guitarist Jared Monaco about the new album, as well as his appreciation for The Rave and ... NSYNC.
Published April 18, 2015
Before the fairy tale riff "Peter and the Starcatcher" starts its run at the Milwaukee Rep on Tuesday, April 21, OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to chat with director Blake Robison about this particular Peter Pan retelling, making actors fly and why revisionist fairy tales are currently all the rage.
Published April 17, 2015
The Wisconsin State Fair's Main Stage lineup this summer features some of the biggest names the celebration has wrangled up in recent note. And the biggest of the bunch - or at least certainly the most unusual - is tightrope artist extraordinaire Nik Wallenda. OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to talk one-on-one with the stuntman about preparing for another life-threatening performance and being in a highwire family dynasty that shows no sign of stopping.
Published April 17, 2015
The Riverside's distant past will become the present as the legendary theater will play host to two screenings of the beloved 1942 classic "Casablanca" Friday and Saturday night. And to complete the blast to the past vibe of the event, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will perform Max Steiner's famous score alongside the movie.
Published April 15, 2015
Eugene Ionesco's 1950 play "The Bald Soprano" - the first the famed playwright ever wrote - is an absurdist classic. It's one of the most performed shows in France with a permanent repertory spot at Theatre de la Huchette since 1957 and a large number of interpretations. It's safe to say, however, that few to none of those interpretations featuring digital actors getting beamed in like "Star Trek" characters.
Published April 14, 2015
The Blue Man Group is famous for several things: funky instruments, those old Intel ads, Tobias Funke proclaiming that "I blue myself!" on "Arrested Development" and, of course, the whole being covered in blue paint thing. But one of the crucial elements of the Blue Man Group is that they don't talk. So imagine my surprise in getting to interview a Blue Man (at least the transcription would be easy).