movies: Cy­ber thriller The Fifth Es­tate short on thrills.....

The Fifth Es­tate is a cy­berthriller with­out thrills, writes Colin Covert

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Play Magazine - - PLAY CONTENTS -

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.

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