Director: Bill Condon
The film is stuffed with grandiose ideas. This is a film about computer programming, coding and hacking and while it tries very hard to compete with the slickness of The Social Network, instead it has ended up its poorer dowdy sister. For a film crammed with world politics, threats of violence and real paranoia, at 128 minutes The Fifth Estate really drags. Its sense of urgency is diluted by its own sense of importance and the whole film is weighed down by the writer’s insistence that the whole context of everything involved need to be explained. For a film that talks about oppressive regimes, corrupt banks, the war in Afghanistan, human rights violations and the hypocrisy of beuracracy, that is a LOT of context to squeeze in. As a writer myself, I would have taken the leap of faith that my audience might already know a little about each of these subjects, but apparently Josh Singer (the screenwriter) does not share my confidence. Instead, I felt like I was being given a history lesson about things that were already fresh in my mind.
In the centre of this big old mess however is a fantastic performance from Cumberbatch. He oozed and crept his way through a portrayal of a confusing public figure, whose motives and psychology seem as confusing as the secrets he leaks. Yet all the subtleties of his performance are wholly undermined by clunking visual signposts that the director had thrown in to drive the point home. Yes, he was influenced by a cult-like organisation called “The Family” as a child, he’s talked about it and now I don’t need to see it. Less is more Mr Condon. I was also expecting the film to be the Benedict Cumberbatch Show, but actually, like the way Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin is not actually the main part in The Last King Of Scotland, Assange is not the lead of The Fifth Estate. Daniel Brühl is our James McAvoy here, our everyman, the outsider looking in and observing this fascinating character, but there are too many attempts to characterise this audience cipher; time that could have been spent with Assange. Brühl is meant to be our Andrew Garfield, but unlike The Social Network, the story of the site overwhelms whatever personal battle was going on behind the scenes. I just wished they would focus on one facet or the other; tell me about Wikileaks or tell me about Assange, doing both is making me not care about either. Meanwhile, Linney and Tucci are thrown in to give an American perspective, while Thewlis gives us the Brits, but really all they are is a distraction, saying obvious lines about obvious things that I found trite and preachy.
Overall, The Fifth Estate was a chaotic jumble of ideas, styles and concepts, that maybe with a better director and a better script would have ended up a good companion piece to The Social Network. Instead, I was left disappointed and confused and convinced that the Wikileaks scandal really was a load of hot air that the media cared about but their readers didn’t. Cumberbatch is brilliant, Brühl fine, but the film is barely watchable at all.