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 Sept. 21, 2014
If you were spitballing names for the ideal cast for a new grown-up dramedy, you might dream up something closely resembling the roll call for "This Is Where I Leave You." It's an impressive gathering of talented, charismatic performers. Unfortunately, they've been assembled for a less than impressive movie, a trite and tonally bipolar dramedy that doesn't deserve the embarrassment of charming, comedic riches at its disposal.
Published Sept. 19, 2014
It's been a turbulent few years for Aaron Freeman, more commonly known as Gene Ween from the band Ween. After much self-repair, however, the musician is himself again - literally - recording and performing as the lead in his new band, fittingly titled Freeman. The band has a new album, along with a tour stopping at Turner Hall Ballroom. Before then, OnMilwaukee.com chatted with Freeman about the road to recovery, music and himself.
Published Sept. 18, 2014
Character actor David Eigenberg is likely best known for spending multiple seasons and two movies romancing Cynthia Nixon's Miranda Hobbes on the iconic HBO TV show "Sex and the City." Eigenberg's latest television project nowadays, however, is far from high fashion and high living in New York City. Instead of a fiery redhead, Eigenberg now co-stars with actual flames on NBC's "Chicago Fire."
Published Sept. 17, 2014
In 2010, Mark Clements arrived in Milwaukee and, in his first act as artistic director, brought something to the Milwaukee Rep's main stage that oddly it had never seen in its impressive history: a musical. Several years later, Clements has made it a bit of a tradition to feature a musical in the Rep's main house schedule. 2014 is no different and the Powerhouse opens up with "The Color Purple."
Published Sept. 15, 2014
The title of The War on Drugs' latest album is "Lost in the Dream," fitting for a record - and a moment in time - that utterly enveloped front man Adam Granduciel. The band is now taking the final product on the road, including a stop at The Pabst Theater on Sunday, Sept. 21. Before then, Granduciel chatted with OnMilwaukee.com about becoming a real band on the road, the process behind the album and the inner battles that went into it.
Published Sept. 14, 2014
It's hard to imagine there was much clamoring for a sequel to "Dolphin Tale." The first film was a modest early fall success back in 2011, but even then, the story of Winter the dolphin was already fairly thin dramatic material, serving as little more than a nice pleasant aside. Still, somebody thought it was a good idea to head back to the well, and surprisingly - judging from "Dolphin Tale 2" - that person wasn't wrong.
Published Sept. 12, 2014
The Brewers are desperately trying to pull themselves out of a devastating tailspin. Even when they win, they seem to lose - as evidenced by last night's Giancarlo Stanton debacle. Sounds like a good time to get baseball's favorite canine Hank the Dog back in the spotlight!
Published Sept. 10, 2014
The country-tinged rock duo of Phil Leavitt and Joie Calio worked together for years in the band Dada. 7Horse, however, marks a fairly new project for the guys. And there are certainly worse things to put on an early band's resume than being associated with an Oscar-nominated Scorsese film. OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to chat with Leavitt about the band's origins, its Milwaukee connection and getting the rare Scorsese Stamp of Approval.
Published Sept. 9, 2014
For fans of the late '90s, names like the Sugar Ray, "TRL," Surge and Chris Gaines will sound very familiar (OK, maybe not that last one). For local music fans around in the era, another name might sound a little familiar: The Buzzhorn.
Published Sept. 8, 2014
The good news? As with every year, the lineup of movies are the Milwaukee Film Festival is overflowing with terrific options. The bad news? Unfortunately, save for some kind of planetary revolution halt, divine intervention or new time machine development, there are only so many hours in the day. So here are some picks for the film festival selections you should definitely make the time to see.