The Fifth Estate could have been an amazing movie, the All the President’s Men of the digital generation. That did not happen, though. Instead, we got a movie that was full of great ideas, and based on a very interesting real-life story, but never found a focus to keep a viewer’s attention throughout the film.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Julian Assange, the man who infamously released hoards of top secret documents, forcing him into seclusion – a wanted man accused by the United States of numerous crimes. While the real Assange is a polarizing figure, a patriot to many and a traitor to many more – Cumberbatch’s version of the character is a man who has high moral goals but an arrogance that allows him to stumble every step of the way.
See, the biggest problem with Julian Assange is that, while he was doing what Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did many years before, it was on a much larger level, more similar to Daniel Elisberg and the release of the Pentagon Papers. Much like that earlier whistleblowing event, Assange released reports of numerous war crimes and illegal invasions of privacy committed by the United States, among other things. However, along the way, he put numerous lives in danger thanks to the un-redacted release of information. He did what Elisberg did, but in a sloppy manner, without considering the consequences.
The movie could have been an amazing look at this huge event, a groundbreaking look at how the new world of digital technology can serve society as a whole in a way that newspapers no longer even attempt to try. It even started out that way, with a brilliant little opening sequence that shows how communication has changed through the years, from etchings to newspapers to television to the Internet.
There was even a great conversation early in The Fifth Estate between Assange and Ian Katz of The Guardian. In their conversation, Katz explains how newspapers like The Guardian report the news in a specific way and that is what the people who buy their newspapers expect from them. Assange quips, “people still buy your paper?” Later, Katz makes fun of the fact that the WikiLeakes site is buffering and Assange explains that happens when 20,000 people an hour are trying to read the site and then asks how The Guardian’s website has been doing.
It was a great look at the new world and the change in how people get their news. The death of newspapers and the rise of citizen journalism. That would have made for a great movie. What we ended up with was a montage of events where Assange and his partner Daniel Berg built WikiLeakes into a successful source of information for the world, making the government into the glass house that Assange envisioned. We then watched as Assange’s arrogance ruined his relationship with Berg and eventually cast Assange out as an exile.
The problem is that The Fifth Estate never really showed how great the stakes were and just seemed like it was touching on moments in the journey without the viewer ever caring about the fallout. The movie might have been better if it was about 30 minutes shorter and spent more time on a specific time frame in the WikiLeakes event, such as the Bradley Manning releases. Instead, it just plods along to the end, with great ideas never really delved into with enough care to make a cohesive story.
What could have been the All the President’s Men for a new generation instead ended up as a hint of what could have been.
There are three special features on the Blu-ray of The Fifth Estate.
The first is “The Submission Platform,” which is a look at the gimmick that Bill Condon used to show the idea of WikiLeakes, creating scenes that shows what the idea would look like if it was in a real location instead of cyberspace. It was a nice idea that worked well on occasion and the explanation of why and how they created it was a nice addition.
The next feature was “In Camera Graphics,” where the production team talked about how they tried to make working on computers seem more visually entertaining in a movie, which included having the typed words stream across the screen as well as the green screen looking montages of computer graphics in the background. It was not as innovative as they have you believe, because you see the same techniques used in the opening montage of every police procedural television show.
“Scoring Secrets” was the third and final special feature and – as expected – talks about scoring the movie.
Honestly, the special features were slightly interesting but nothing I would be interested in watching a second time around. There was a huge lost opportunity here, as The Fifth Estate Blu-ray could have been a must-buy with a more in-depth look at the source material with either a behind-the-scenes making of featurette or maybe interviews with people involved in the real WikiLeakes ordeal. That would have been the prefect special feature for this release and was a lost opportunity.