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 Dec. 21, 2014
The bad news for "Wild": Director Jean-Marc Vallée, at least three films into his career this side of the Canadian border, specializes in making Oscar bait. No, wait; don't run away quite yet, because the flip side is that Vallée has mastered the art of making Oscar bait that doesn't feel like it. And now he's pulling off the same trick with "Wild."
Published Dec. 20, 2014
With its brand of rock music uncoils, cracks and unleashes in sharp, aggressive, raw fashion with a swift dash of sex appeal, Whips is an remarkably appropriate name for the Milwaukee-based rock foursome. And now the quartet has a new LP, "Turn It On," arriving Saturday night at a record release show at the Cactus Club.
Published Dec. 19, 2014
"The Interview" was canceled this past week amongst hack attacks and terrorist threats. It doesn't matter that this happened to THIS particular movie. What matters is what this means for ALL movies. And what this moment represents is a terrible precedent for the future of film and art altogether.
Published Dec. 17, 2014
When I arrived to interview Harlem Globetrotter Sweet J Ekworomadu - the 12th female player in the team's 89-year history - in advance of their traditional New Year's Eve game at the BC, I was asked if I wanted to play a game of horse with Sweet J. Considering I hadn't shot a basketball since probably middle school, I couldn't turn down the opportunity fast enough. I was, however, able to ask some one-on-one questions with Ekworomadu.
Published Dec. 16, 2014
The story behind "It's a Wonderful Life" is now almost as well-known as the story of George Bailey himself. The movie performed below expectations back in 1946, but several decades later, as the movie made its way into the public domain, "It's a Wonderful Life" grew into a holiday classic. Now there's many renditions of the story, including a staged radio show version - complete with old school sound effects - coming to the Marcus Center.
Published Dec. 15, 2014
Fans have been routinely left waiting for a Chris Rock movie that truly plays up to the standard of Chris Rock. Luckily, the wait is over with the arrival of "Top Five," a loose-limbed comedy about celebrity that feels like a movie worthy of its star - in both its voice and its significant supply of laughs.
Published Dec. 12, 2014
2014 is coming to a close, which means it's time to put my first full calendar year as an official working, adult member of society in the books (well, jury's still out on the adult part). Here are some of the most memorable moments - both good and bad - from a most memorable year.
Published Dec. 10, 2014
Luckily, what's currently housed and featured at the Racine Art Museum is just as interesting and compelling as the building itself: an expansive two-part exhibition called "in(Organic)," a compilation of art works that combine the natural and unnatural - in terms of thematic meaning and artistic medium - in ways both beautiful and often unnerving.
Published Dec. 9, 2014
What doesn't kill you supposedly makes you stronger. In the case of the sneakily incisive new Swedish dark comedy "Force Majeure," however, what doesn't kill you reveals your deepest faults to all of your loved ones. And they are not impressed.
Published Dec. 8, 2014
2014 was the year of the selfie. In the beginning of the year, there was the great Oscars selfie, a photo that literally broke Twitter for a few seconds. The word existed before, but after that, suddenly news stations and outlets were attempting to cram it into every headline (similar to "twerk" in 2013) and everybody was getting on board with the word. A part of that selfie insanity was the irony-drenched EDM hit "#Selfie" from The Chainsmokers.