rating: 3The Internet. Crazy, isn't it? All that free flowing information, instantaneously available at the tip of anyone's fingers who knows how to search for it. And it really democratizes the world, right? I mean, it gives power to the people, you know, man. This is the clichéd, armchair philosopher's understanding of the internet, and though it is not necessarily inaccurate, unless you have been living in cave or an Amish community for the last decade, it isn't all that profound either. Nevertheless, this is more or less the attitude of The Fifth Estate, the first fictional feature film to tackle the life of hactivist Julian Assange, the founder of the famous (or infamous depending on who you are) Wikileaks. The film at the outset is seemingly about the relationship between Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl), his carefully chosen partner in crime as they plot to shake up the world and bring down the corrupt elite who abuse their power for their own greedy ends. In this section, although stylistically chintzy in its exaggerated attempts to be cyber punk chic, the film works pretty well. With a clear goal in sight, the duo of would-be digital muckrakers have a clear and succinct goal: take down the corrupt Swiss bank Julius Baer, which is secretly hiding massive amount of funds for rich tax dodgers all over the world. Not only is this strict focus good for the relationship of the two men, it also is good for the movie, for while undeniably middle-brow in style and aesthetic, the energy of the story early on is enough to hold the film up. Unfortunately, as the film progresses, it delves into uninteresting and inessential peripheral topics. Bruhl's character gets the inevitable girlfriend. Assange's rough childhood upbringing in an Austailan cult is brought to light just enough to do some amateur psychiatric excuse making (but of course is used no more than a biographical stat sheet for the audience to keep in its head). And then in perhaps the film's worst mistake, we leave the perspective of Assange and Berg all together to see the mess the e-anarchists create from the point of view of the workers in the White House and State Department. While it's commendable that the film tries very hard to take an evenhanded approach to a very sensitive topic (contrary to some pre-release concerns, this biopic is far from a hagiography), ultimately, this pandering detracts from the film. It's nice to clearly illustrate the dangers of releasing classified materials without redacting the names of covert operatives by literally showing us the perils one such agent must go through in order to survive, but when the story for the first half of the film has been solely about the relationship between two men, it feels like a haphazard addition. I understand that when the lives of covert operatives are theoretical it is easy to, as Assange does (and as some in the media have), dismiss their lives as collateral damage, but if the film doesn't respect the intelligence of the audience enough to sympathize with the lives the Wikileaks publications could put in danger without explicitly showing the danger, than it's going to take a lot more than some citizen journalists exposing injustices for this world to ever truly improve. And herein lies the main problem of The Fifth Estate: it doesn't respect its audience. The film is written by former West Wing writer Josh Singer and because of this connection to Aaron Sorkin, along with the fact that both films focus on doomed male relationships between egomaniacal internet pioneers and their jilted partners, before the film had been screened for anyone, it was already being compared to The Social Network. The key difference between these films though, and the reason why one is a modern classic and the other will be a mediocre afterthought, is because Fincher and Sorkin's film assumed some basic competence from its audience, while Singer's script, under the direction of Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Twilight Breaking Dawn: Parts 1 and 2), treats its audience like grade school children. If Jessie Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield constantly kept saying throughout The Social Network, "This Facebook thing, we're going to shake up the world with this. People, because of our social network, which allows constant interaction between people, are going to be able to communicate with each other on a whole new level. Society is never going to be same," then you get an idea of what your in store for when/if you see The Fifth Estate.
Despite all these weaknesses though, the charisma of the two leads goes a long way. Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems to be the man of the hour this year, appearing in such films as Star Trek Into Darkness, August: Osage County, and Twelve Years a Slave, portrays Assange as a man driven by an indignant sense of self-righteousness that appears to be about standing up for the weak against the sins of the powerful, but is actually motivated by much more powerful and tangible reasons. It's not a full-body transformation on the level of Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, but a fine performance nonetheless. Bruhl, playing the film's actual protagonist and hero to the audience, creates an easy character to sympathize with, but without making him a empty cipher. The story of Wikileaks, and the corruptions they have exposed, is a fascinating one. This inherent strength in subject matter, along with a pair of talented leads, makes The Fifth Estate an easy watch, even as its weakness are all to apparent. With a tighter script and more adept direction, The Fifth Estate might have been something special, but by trying to be everything to everyone, it ends up being little to all. 3/5 stars