Movie review: 'The Fifth Estate' chronicles an information revolution

For the News-DemocratOctober 17, 2013 

What It's About

The truth is likely somewhere between Julian Assange's version and his former collaborator Daniel Domscheit-Berg's account, which is the basis of "The Fifth Estate." It's a modern look at the revolution WikiLeaks began, and the eventual consequences of spreading unfiltered sensitive information.

Assange's motives to expose corruption and affect change for the downtrodden is admirable, at first, and manages to attract admirers around the globe. But his massive ego and questionable ethics raised concerns. His reckless behavior eventually stops the info flow. But during its game-changing success, WikiLeaks was a force that mainstream media could no longer ignore.

As Assange's fame grew, Domscheit-Berg's doubts also escalated, and their riff became irreparable. The controversial tactics could not continue, but it did change news in the 21st century.

This globetrotting exercise is frantic in execution, daunting in scope, and unable to be digested easily. Still, it's a fascinating window to a whole new world, yet likely raising more questions than providing answers.


The complex relationship between the founder and the disciple are at the center of the film. These real-life characters are played by two rising stars with the acting chops to keep us riveted. Benedict Cumberbatch ("Star Trek Into Darkness"), the tall slender Brit with the coolest name in showbiz, is the current star du jour. He presents Assange as a cunning charlatan with the smarts to pull off daring feats but with a cavalier arrogance that is his downfall. Despite the awful wig, he gets under the skin of this driven Australian non-conformist.

He is matched by Daniel Bruehl ("Rush"), capturing the fervor of a German techno-geek swept away by the dizzying possibilities of cyber whistle-blowing.

The supporting cast of state department personnel and newspaper editors help bring a human face to the dangers of what Assange pulls off. As good as they are, Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney are wasted as government officials caught in the crossfire.

What Works

Director Bill Condon ("Of Gods and Monsters") intelligently crafts a crazy continental map, and we're bouncing around the world with Assange. When he stops for moments of human connection, that allows us to see the true force of what has unfolded. He takes a multimedia approach, flitting from news accounts, video footage, and world headlines.

What Doesn't Work

Setting up such a complicated story requires patience. For all its build-up, the film ends abruptly, with a note telling us Assange is in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London.

The finely detailed script by Josh Singer uses Domscheit-Berg's book, "Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website," as a source. So it's from the side with an ax to grind -- although from most accounts, it's pretty accurate.

And now, a modern dilemma: When so much "action" takes place with computer keyboards and monitor screens, it's hard to keep that compelling drama. Watching people type isn't an ideal movie scene, but it's necessary.

Nevertheless, the story is a fresh predicament, covering 2007-2011, and the kind of cautionary tale we need to see. I suppose we should stay tuned ...

2 1/2 stars out of 4

Director: Bill Condon

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruehl, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci

Rated: R for language and some violence

Length: 2:08

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