Great Ideas but Mixed Messages in Disappointing Drama “The Fifth Estate”

Bill Condon is in the director’s chair for this drama based on the story of Daniel Domscheit-Berg who was the colleague of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Ryan Pollard takes a look…

fifth-estate_benedict-cumberbatchThe Fifth Estate is the latest of several ongoing documentary and drama productions about Julian Assange and his website Wikileaks. In dealing with the story of Wikileaks itself, what we get in the film is the central story of these two characters, one of whom is terribly head-strong and desperate to publish and driven by needs which we don’t understand, while the other one is much more concerned and is more worried about the consequences of these actions. So, you have this tension that is not unlike the tension in The Social Network, which was also a film about the Internet revolution that was created by two key characters (one being the head-strong centre of the story and the other offering us something to empathise with) that then fall out with each other.

Very recently, we had the Alex Gibney documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, which was also rebuffed by Wikileaks themselves, and the documentary did a very good job of having an interesting line through it and a very interesting case. What you usually get with a drama is a clearer through line because with dramas, you tend to simplify things for the audience and people tend to become characters and ciphers. However, the irony of this situation is that it’s actually, in the end, the other way around. In the case of the Alex Gibney documentary, there seemed to be a very clear line taken on Julian Assange, which Assange then took obviously, but in the case of this, despite the claims and reports saying that this was going to be some kind of propaganda job, it feels very even-handed.

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It is even-handed to the point of not really knowing where it’s going, and here lies the key problem. You get a terrific central performance from Benedict Cumberbatch who gets the mannerisms, the voice and the physical presence of Assange just right; Cumberbatch is a terrific actor and has a great body of work, whether it’s TV’s Sherlock, Star Trek Into Darkness or the recent 12 Years A Slave. So, there was no doubting that he wouldn’t have been able to do this because he does do a great job here. However, what he doesn’t have here is a role that allows him to follow the film through, and it’s the same situation with the other great actors in the film. For example, the terrific Daniel Bruhl, who plays Daniel Berg or David Thewlis’ stubbly news reporter or future Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi. It’s also a real shame too that the terrific Alicia Vikander, who has given outstanding performances in A Royal Affair and Anna Karenina, gets lost in the mix.

The film appears terribly undecided about Julian Assange, and despite how Assange himself may feel about the portrayal, it felt like the film really wasn’t sure what point it wanted to make. It’s a film that doesn’t feel balanced and has a sense of fearfulness about it, like it’s treading on eggshells, slowly tiptoeing around its main subject. Bill Condon can be a balanced director, and if you look at his work like Kinsey and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Parts One and Two, he’s someone that’s a safe pair of hands and he’s not somebody who would ever go in for proper stark realism or something that was maliciously intended at all. He’s someone that would bring an almost sober take on a subject matter. But, the strange thing is that, in the case of The Fifth Estate, a little bit of clear direction would have gone a long way. The funny thing is, despite the fact that Assange’s and Wikileaks’ objections have been that it’s fiction posing as fact and that it’s a one-sided story because it’s based on Berg’s version of accounts so therefore it’s disputed, I felt that the crucial thing that was hobbling the film more than anything was a crucial indecision about exactly where it was going.

This is partly because the story is still playing out even now; the story still hasn’t reached its ending and is still in flux, so it’s still fairly early on to have a dramatic feature, and that’s partly because the film is trying to have a balanced and even-handed perspective. Yet you do wish that the film has taken a more courageous and risky approach. Certainly Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance warrants much stronger material around it. There was a spirit in what he was capturing through his presence, physically, vocally, and he was certainly moving forwards, but the drama wasn’t moving forwards with him.

The Fifth Estate is a piece of fiction based on fact, and if you’re going to make a fiction, you need to really go for it a little bit more, and in the end, it does feel tepid. The film feels lukewarm and directionless, something that cannot be said of Alex Gibney’s similarly-themed documentary, for example. Even though Gibney’s film drew from various points of view and, indeed, factual elements, it had a clear sharp line through it, like it knew what it set out to do, and that wasn’t the case with The Fifth Estate and that’s its problem.

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Written by Ryan Pollard

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About the Author
Ryan Pollard is a former student of Animation at the University of Huddersfield.

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    Rodney Reply

    I have this currently sitting in the (large) pile of things I need to watch… I’ve heard some average reports about it, unfortunately, but I’m still keen to see it. And Cumberbatch!!

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