'The Fifth Estate' (2013) Movie Review - Toronto Film Festival

The Fifth Estate movie review
Daniel Bruhl and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Fifth Estate
Photo: Touchstone / DreamWorks Pictures

The Fifth Estate hardly leaves much room for praise outside of credit for Benedict Cumberbatch's performance as the narcissistic Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and a mild applause for Daniel Bruhl as his colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg. The two give what can be interpreted as solid performances, but inside a movie where the characters have the emotional depth of nameless stooges in television commercials and each scene feels similarly empty. We're constantly bombarded with pixelated text telling us where in the world we are now, followed by the hammering of key strokes accompanied by Carter Burwell's electronic score painting this as some sort of Bourne Identity-esque thriller, but it never feels any more thrilling than a mobile phone advert.

The Fifth Estate
Grade: D

The Fifth Estate"The Fifth Estate" is a DreamWorks Pictures, Touchstone Pictures release, directed by Bill Condon and is rated R for language and some violence. The running time is .

The cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Peter Capaldi, Carice van Houten, Stanley Tucci, Alexander Beyer, Dan Stevens and Kyle Soller.

There's no argument Julian Assange (Cumberbatch) and his website made an impact on the world over the last several years with their uncovering of illegal activities by Swiss Bank Julius Baer, the hacking of Sarah Palin's email account, the leaking of documents from Iceland's Kaupthing Bank and, of course, the release of a quarter of a million cables and some 77,000 documents provided the site by US Army Private Bradley Manning. Each of these plays a role in The Fifth Estate, but the film ultimately plays as some sort of highlight reel rather than an actual story as Assange flies all across the world, speaking at conventions with his head on a swivel as he rushes through airports looking about as guilty as an escaped convict in his prison orange.

Meanwhile, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Bruhl), whose book partially served as inspiration for the film's adaptation by first-time feature writer Josh Singer ("The West Wing", "Fringe"), nips at his heels like a trained dog until he's been kicked one too many times. Add to that a trio of paper thin US state department officials played by Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie, whose names I forgot as soon as I heard them and involvement in the story seems more out of begrudging necessity rather than well thought-out reason. Everything, for that matter, in this movie seems secondary to a lot of typing, instant messaging and in-fighting.

If anything comes across it's a focus on Assange's delusional nature and narcissism, but that can only sustain the narrative for so long, especially since it seems to be the only thing Singer decided defined his character. Well, that and the fact he dyes his hair white and likes to use it for cheeky jokes in casual conversation.

Director Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 and 2, Dreamgirls) appears to be making the film he thinks he's supposed to make, but it would seem he was given a subpar screenplay to work from. I guess I can give Condon credit for trying to jazz up a story that's as flat as week old soda with a techno score and flashy editing, but I can't tell you how many times we're reminded of the fact Wikileaks as an organization is only made up of Julian and Daniel rather than the hundreds of volunteers Assange has lied about and this is all done through a metaphorical room filled with desks and computers, all with different name plates and all with Assange sitting at each desk. Later in the film, as things begin to fall apart, we're greeted to a bit of apocalyptic imagery as papers tumble from the scorched sky. Wow, deep.

For as much as the story should be about Assange and his co-horts as people and Wikileaks as an organization, The Fifth Estate actually seems to be reactionary and just as in the dark as the rest of the world was back in 2007 before Wikileaks began opening the door to whistle-blowers around the world. Perhaps it's unfair to compare the film to David Fincher's The Social Network, but it would only be unfair because one is a towering achievement by comparison and makes the other look like a GeoCities page, still living with the same perception of the Internet we had back in the late-90s rather than the robust medium it has become where merely typing really fast on a keyboard and instant messaging isn't as intense as this film seems to think it is.

The pounding techno score is entierly out of place, but when you're essentially making a film made up of a series of scenes that play like commercials, generic tunes and graphics that serve as eye sores, I guess, are the apt mode of storytelling. I'm just surprised we didn't see any women in bikinis shilling Budweiser midway through or, in this case, a commercial for the Sega Genesis, though I did notice a Commodore 64.

The Fifth Estate brings nothing new to the table as much as it scratches the surface of every headline concerning the Wikileaks organization we've seen over the past several years with the journalistic depth of reading a Twitter post and assuming we have the full story. In that sense I guess it may be an apt representation of our current society's understanding of journalism, which is, for the most part, disseminated 140 characters at a time, but I don't think that's the point.

In the end, The Fifth Estate adds up to a film so focused on headlines, globe-trotting and keyboard mashing that it forgets to tell an actual story... you know, with characters and meaning.


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  • http://www.rabidpictures.com Yaz

    Wow. Surprised by this. Interested to see what others say. I was very much looking forward to this one, but now, I'm a bit deflated.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/navaneethks/ navaneethks

    wow. After Laremy's tweet yesterday, I expected a lower grade, but not this low. I'll still be watching to to see what I make of it.

  • Aidan Khan

    So far this has like a 36% on RT so i kinda saw this coming. Oh well. Im hoping for a high GRaivty grade!

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Corbin/ Corbin

    Wow. That's really shocking. It was getting mixed reviews, so I was expecting you to be somewhere in that range, but not down this low. Just shocking. I still have interest in it, but it's somewhat dwindled down based on this and other reviews. But, I'll still try to see it, just with low expectations.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

    and I have this in my Fall box office draft....

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Adu/ Adu

    I'm honestly not surprised, the film seemed so unappealing and pointeless from the outset to me. I don't see the need for the story to be a film at all.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/andyluvsfilms/ andyluvsfilms

    Just watch the We Steal Secrets documentary instead, it sounds a lot better than this narration.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

      On a technical level, We Steal Secrets is well made. But if you're looking for an honest and accurate film about Assange and WikiLeaks, avoid the Gibney film at all costs.

  • http://letterboxd.com/gman/ G-Man

    A C+ and then a D... Not the greatest start to a film festival

    • John Debono

      Won't spoil much, but the positive reviews should pick up quite soon once Brad gets to see 12 Years A Slave.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Foggy/ Liam Fogarty

    Ouch, was hoping for a lot more from this.

  • http://cineenuruguay.com/ Driver

    Uff, really bad news here. The trailer looked quite dynamic and... good...

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/SplosionExpert/ Splosion Expert

    So it seems a good portion of all the "good" fall movies are just as crappy as this summer's movies. Man this was a bad year for film. It almost makes me want to give up on the industry.

    • http://www.twitter.com/GregDinskisk GregDinskisk

      You're kidding, right? Technically it isn't fall yet. I'd say this is a fantastic year for film that's independent (look at Upstream Color, Before Midnight, Mud say some, Fruitvale Station). This is the 'first' film of TIFF. Give it a little time.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Art/ Art

      I've gotten the same feeling thus far, pretty weak year. Hope that Greg is right though and there is still some good films to come.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Anna/ Anna

      Have to disagree with you, I actually think this year has been pretty awesome.
      Good movies released this year : Mud, Before Midnight, Upstream Colour, Stories We Tell, The Act of Killing , Frances Ha, Laurence Anyways, The Hunt , Spring Breakers , Side Effects , Beyond the Hills, The Conjuring , Blue Jasmine , Fruitvale Staion...

      And it's still september. =)

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Newbourne/ Newbourne

        Side Effects was okay, not great. Same for Mud, although the kid gave a solid performance. Spring Breakers downright sucked. Same goes for The Conjuring, and I never understood why those "Before" movies get any praise. It's just a bunch of ridiculous conversations that would never occur in the real world.

        I have not seen Blue Jasmine or Fruitvale Station, but I've heard good things. I have no idea what "Stories We Tell", "Upstream color", "Frances Ha" or "Beyond the Hills" are, so I'm either living under a rock, or these films have been purposely hidden from me. I'll be googling after clicking "Post comment".

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Xarnis/ Xarnis

    This really looked interesting, but it never really looked like a great film. I'll end up seeing it, but my expectations are lower than they were before.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Art/ Art

    I'm not a Julian Assange fan, but as a Cumberbatch fan I'm disappointed. That's what happens when he works with Billy Condon.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Winchester/ Winchester

    While I always had it down as a rental anyway I have read some comments and opinions on it which make it sound like a completely different film to the one described above so people are clearly having polar opposite reactions to it.

    Guess I'll find out whenever I rent it.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Ryguy815/ Ryguy815

    That's disappointing. I thought the trailer looked fantastic.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/icerose/ cynthia dower

    Reading other reviews I have been disappointed by the over all tone and bias of the film which seems to have only used the single source which is a book by someone who fell out with him. I had expected a more balanced overview but if the reviews are correct the portrait of Assange seems to focus on personality flaws rather than a deeper look at the man encompassing all areas of motivation. As good an actor as Benedict Cumberbatch is for me it requires a multi faceted representation to be truly interesting and worthy of acting accolades.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Hudsucker/ Hudsucker

    Whoever thought Brad would like Breaking Dawn Part 2 more than The Fifth Estate? (I'm not criticizing Brad, I'm just really surprised.)

  • http://www.thecasualheroes.com/ Grissom

    Brad, what happened to your Rush review?

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Anna/ Anna

      I was wondering the same.

  • http://moviereviewninja.com themoviewatcher

    That's too bad as I thought it looked great. Still will check it out though.