The Fifth Estate takes on what is possibly the most compelling story of the past few years. Indeed, the concepts of citizen journalism, freedom of information and whistleblowing has taken over public consciousness since Wikileaks leaked various explosive documents to the public a few years ago. When news of the film version came out, despite Julian Assange’s protestations, the potential to really understand how Wikileaks ascended to their heights and how they produced their massively influential documents was highly intriguing.
Based on books (full disclosure – I’ve never read the book) by previous Wikileaks employees, it instead chose to delve deeper into the psychology of Julian Assange and his relationship with, in particular, Daniel Berg. Even when accepting the premise of the story, the movie failed to deliver on the psychological/inter-relational thriller that it purported to do. In essence, the movie failed in this regard because of two reasons.
First, there was very little corroboration of the events and the details that Berg wrote about Assange, leaving it to be a one-sided memoir that lacks the gravitas of believability. While giving credit to Assange’s genius and his ability to inspire cult-like loyalty, it never veered from painting Assange as narcissistic, needy and without scruples. Alternatively, it never veered from portraying Berg as a true revolutionary, consistent with his morals and the common good. While both may be true to an extent, the lack of depth given to these characters turned them into caricatures of who they probably truly are.
Second, the movie failed to deliver the psychological/inter-relational thriller simply because it lacked the force of good storytelling. Scenes did not seem like they followed a particular or logical flow. Dialogue between the characters was stilted at best and comical at worst. The most egregious offense in this regard was the attempt to humanize Assange through his back story, with Cumberbatch forced to bring up non-sequitur memories of his childhood at inopportune times, rife with clichés.
To be fair, the well-picked cast all portrayed their characters to the best of their abilities. It is their performances that salvage the movie, somewhat. In particular, note the strong performances of Daniel Bruhl, Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci.
The Fifth Estate is a self-serving and one-sided look at the Wikileaks story, which would be forgivable if the film was not as bland and poorly-scripted as it was. While it features a great cast, and good performances from them all, The Fifth Estate feels less like a story and more like a hodgepodge of specific memories and maybe even some delusions. The film benefits from taking on one of the most interesting and impactful stories of this generation – Wikileaks – but squanders the opportunity to tell a great story or make a great film.