movies: Cyber thriller The Fifth Estate short on thrills.....
The Fifth Estate is a cyberthriller without thrills, writes Colin Covert
WHEN a democratically elected government erects walls of secrecy around its operations, is breaching those ramparts espionage, or higher patriotism? When spy agencies have unprecedented surveillance power, should activists hold those institutions to account? Who should judge whether classified leaks are too sensitive to report?
Is Julian Assange the James Bond of digital journalism, or an ego-mad supervillain?
The Fifth Estate wrestles with such messy, imprecise moral complexities as it dramatises the rise and ostracism of WikiLeaks founder Assange.
Director Bill Condon (of Kinsey, Dreamgirls and the Twilight series) shows admirable ambition in tackling such a slippery character. It’s an intellectual grappling match that leaves viewers feeling worked over, disoriented and not much the wiser.
Screenwriter Josh Singer ( The West Wing) has no idea what hacker extraordinaire Assange’s political legacy will be. What he delivered is neither a political suspense film, nor an international fugitive chase, nor a penetrating character study.
Like The Social Network and Jobs before it, The Fifth Estate’s takeaway message is that the geek demigods shaping our future are driven, cerebral and total jerks.
The film unfolds in the two years before Assange published classified US military cables about the war in Afghanistan. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the platinum-haired hacker as a bipolar enigma.
In one scene he seems principled and justifiably defensive under attack from his many powerful enemies. In the next he’s demagogic, imperious and erratic, turning against one-time friend Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl), a German WikiLeaks collaborator, who is portrayed as being wise and astute.
Domscheit-Berg’s memoir, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website, served as the film’s backbone, which may explain why he appears so gallant.
Condon revs every scene with manic energy. The opening montage takes us from the development of cuneiform writing through telegraphy, TV and the Internet in a rocket-sled blur.
There are speed-blurred references to WikiLeaks’ early exposes, uncovering the dirty laundry of big businesses and governments around the world.
But Condon wants us to be dazzled by clumps of binary data and online chats whipping across the screen. His boldest scenes laughably imagine WikiLeaks’ cloud-based workplace as a Matrix- like virtual office open to the skies.
Still, you sympathise. It’s not easy to give spy-movie urgency to a film where a big action scene is a guy whipping a laptop out of his backpack. Locations skip from Berlin to London to Reykjavik, and whenever a scene can be set in a techno-beat disco with whirly lights, it is. Dialogue is declaimed, not spoken.
As English reporter Nick Davies, who uncovered the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal, David Thewlis has mouthfuls of argle-bargle about print journalism’s sacred responsibility to protect sources, check stories and not put lives in danger. Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci play a couple of State Department diplomats who furrow their brows at Assange’s tell-all agenda.
The subtext is, ‘‘Stay alert, this is really important’’, but the film is so unwieldy that details blur. Ultimately The Fifth Estate is a cyberthriller without thrills.
The Fifth Estate opens today.
From left: Benedict Cumberbatch (as Julian Assange), Carice van Houten (Birgitta Jonsdottir), Daniel Brhl (Daniel Domscheit-Berg) and Moritz Bleibtreu (Marcus) in The Fifth Estate.