Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Alexander Siddig
I wish I could say that The Fifth Estate’s horrendous opening weekend was not deserved. Unfortunately, not only is the WikiLeaks story just not that enticing, but the film itself was under marketed, disorganized, and slightly boring. These things combined to win The Fifth Estate the worst box office opening of 2013, with a mere $1.7 million from over 1,500 theaters. Admittedly, the only real reason I was interested in seeing The Fifth Estate in the first place was because Benedict Cumberbatch plays WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and I am a sucker for anything involving Benedict Cumberbatch.
The Fifth Estate is the well-publicized story of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his rise to fame and eventual infamy through the release of leaked classified documents. He teams up with fellow tech expert Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl), who not only helps him authenticate documents and reinforce security, but also helps keep the capricious, sensitive Julian in line. The film tracks their first meeting, the beginning of their partnership, the rising fame of WikiLeaks and of Assange, the growing trouble between the partners as they find themselves in serious legal and physical danger from the government, and the eventual end of WiliLeaks and of Julian and Daniel’s friendship. The film touches on many controversies surrounding WikiLeaks and specifically many rumors and mysteries surrounding the unique character of Assange.
The beginning of the film feels incredibly disjointed, with characters and places being introduced in short scenes prefaced with distracting, techno style titles announcing place and time. While the titles do have a certain stylistic connection to the European underground technological community – hackers, demo-sceners, gamers, coders – it is used with such regularity in the beginning that it makes it difficult to engage in the narrative, being pulled from one scene to another so startlingly. The film does eventually find its pace and actually moves along quite smoothly for a while, one twist to another, one triumph to the next crisis. The entire middle of the movie is actually quite intriguing, seeing two men fight for a cause they believe in, not only seeing them do good work, but also seeing them make bad choices that have extreme consequences, and coming to understand both sides of a controversy. Oddly, somewhere along the line the movie loses its way again and we stop caring how it ends. The strange abstract metaphorical interludes don’t help the flow of the movie much, and seem totally unnecessary for our understanding of events. Assange’s organization is represented as an endless room filled with rows of desks and computers, sometimes occupied totally by copies of Assange (representing the fact that the organization of hundreds is actually just an organization of one), sometimes completely empty except for Berg (representing how Berg is doing all the work for the organization), or sometimes in shambles (obviously representing the organization is in shambles). It’s not only distracting, but the symbolism is so obvious that it feels intellectually insulting.
On the positive side, the acting was amazing. The entire cast was incredibly well matched to their parts and was engaging to watch. I was especially pleased to see Alexander Siddig (Dr. Julian Bashir of Star Trek: Deep Space 9) in a bit part as the representation of the risk to human life that leaking classified documents might pose. I recognized him immediately, but something in his performance made me doubt his identity until I saw his name in the credits. Benedict Cumberbatch turns in another great performance as Julian Assange. Cumberbatch was fortunate enough to correspond with Assange via email about the project, and the actor’s close study of Assange shows. He captures Assange’s mannerisms, tics, gestures, and way of speaking wonderfully. Even more miraculous is Cumberbatch’s ability to seemingly change his face without doing anything at all to it. Watching The Fifth Estate, you can hardly believe that Cumberbatch is the same actor who played Star Trek villain Khan, or the world’s only consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, or Stephen Hawking, or Christopher Tietjens. The way his face works changes drastically from character to character, with an entirely new set of expressions and mannerisms for each one. And while his voice is undeniably one of the most distinctive around, one would be hard pressed to connect the precise, clipped syllables of Khan Noonien Singh with the hazy, swollen mouth sounds of Julian Assange. The man is a chameleon of the most deceiving kind – the kind that doesn’t need special makeup or prosthetics or elaborate costume pieces in order to distinguish one character from another. You will always know it’s him, but you will always believe he’s someone else.