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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Neither Fish Nor Fowl, 2 Dec 2013
This review is from: The Fifth Estate [DVD] (DVD)
I looked forward to seeing "The Fifth Estate" at the cinema, not the least because I haven't yet made up my mind on Assange--"Hero or Villain?" as the posters ask. Beyond ongoing press revelations over the years, I was only familiar with the story as a cogent narrative from the book "Wikileaks" by the editors of The Guardian. As a pretty lefty liberal, I'm inclined to mistrust all government and side with anyone who reveals its corrupt interior, but I would've been quite tolerant of a coherent case for Assange as dangerous megalomaniac, given how scattershot the leaks he publishes are. The problem is director Bill Condon decided to give us both. However balanced he (and apparently his star, Benedict Cumberbatch) thought he was being, the result is a long-winded blur of character study, mixed in with a detailed overview of the birth of Wikileaks, and some late-in-the-game international tension. Throw in the petty bitterness which pops up between the author of the other source book ("Inside Wikileaks" by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, played here by Daniel Bruhl) and his erstwhile mentor, and you have a movie that leaves you as baffled and unresolved as you were before you paid for your ticket.

As a straight-on character study, untainted by failed idealism via Domscheit-Berg, this film might've been quite something. There gets to be a point where saying any more about how talented an actor Benedict Cumberbatch is makes you sound like one of his 'fangurls', but, as is so common with this actor, his ability to immerse himself in a role is remarkable. Though his face superficially looks nothing like Assange's, he does such phenomenal work with body language and head/eye movements, to say nothing of how his face is transformed by twitches, accent, and prosthetic teeth and hair, that Cumberbatch quite disappears. (I have a theory that this flop might not stick to him, as much for the reason that no one will quite remember he was in it at all, so complete is his vanishing act.) When he is on screen, the movie slows down and you are compelled to watch him recreate. Had Condon just added--with appropriate sub-textual reservations--some of the pettiness of the one-time disciple kvetching, among other things, about how his mentor embarrassed him at mom and dad's over dinner (you expected perhaps the manners of the petit bourgeoisie, Domscheit-Berg?), the movie might have been a real-life "Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" writ large: plenty of blame to go around, no true heroism on either side, a study of the foibles of the near-great and betrayals by those with whom they surround themselves. But no.

Condon (and the writer Josh Singer) has another book to source and so we're also going to be treated to a great deal of information on the development of Wikileaks--from a one-man show to an international 'cause celebre'. Suddenly, there are too many venues, too many characters, and now we're rooting for the boys to outwit the monsters of press and government who are on their heels. And here's where Condon loses sight of the 'vision thing'. First, he introduces, more than half-way through the movie, another sub-plot starring two excellent American character actors: Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney. And they are, well and truly, 'Government'--maybe State Department, maybe CIA. But Linney is trying to save actual people from the fallout of the scattershot Wikileaks revelations, and she will lose her seemingly 'good-guy' job over what the 'boys' of Wiki have been up to.

Though this is the most suspense-filled portion of the movie (from which Assange himself has all-but-disappeared), I am astonished that an experienced director like Bill Condon didn't notice that he was forcing the audience to switch sides emotionally. We were not fully enough vested in these odd-accented, off-the-radar intellectuals he had built the first half of the movie around to relate to them again after the Linney-Tucci mini-movie gave us government-with-heart. In fact, whereas Domscheit-Berg (Bruhl) was only annoying while he was losing his Assange-religion before this, we are now bizarrely asked to root for him to align himself with 'press and government' in order to shut Assange down. All that collateral damage was implicit from the first step he took with Assange. The intrinsic morality (or lack thereof) of Wikileaks didn't change because of what Bradley Manning gave them or what Assange released.

Am I wrong to ask the director (and writer) of the movie to give me a coherent ethical point-of-view, even if I disagree with it? (Indeed, with a subject matter as contemporary as this one, there were always going to be some who disagreed, no matter whether "hero or villain"--and that may have been point enough.) It's harder with biopics, I know, but the usually reliable Cumberbatch may play a bigger role in the movie's pursuing 'balance' at the expense of cohesion than we might think. We know he exchanged emails with Assange on a couple of occasions. And in an article in The Independent which predates the movie's opening, co-star David Thewlis said admiringly of Cumberbatch, "I think he's turned the film around. . . . I think he became more sympathetic towards Julian as the film went on, as opposed to the script [which] changed."

No matter if he was unduly influenced by his gifted star, the buck stops with the director; it was his duty to pursue the 'vision thing' if he wanted this to be memorable for something other the worst box office of 2013. The movie Condon wanted to 'channel', so it is said, was "The Social Network", but there Fincher (director) and Sorkin (writer) did have a moral, even if it was one the Zuckerberg character was destined not to understand. Here, everyone valued the real Assange's understanding too much. No wonder Wikileaks' answer to "The Fifth Estate", a documentary called "Mediastan" and released the same week as the DreamWorks movie, proportionally outperformed the bigger film: Assange was more than willing to use bias for dramatic effect. Why didn't anyone send that memo to Bill Condon?
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