How much you find yourself enjoying The Fifth Estate depends on several factors outside the usual criteria of film criticism. For one, the film makes no secret (sorry) out of a general support for transparency, at least in some regulated form, but poises itself to smear Wikileaks founder Julian Assange almost as much as the mainstream American Media. By the final stretch of the runtime, any remaining supporters of Assange are shown as foolish and even naive. The filmmakers hope this arc mirrors those sitting in the cinema, but unlike better films that work to humanize each opposing character, such as David Fincher’s contemporary masterpiece The Social Network that this film borrows from heavily, it becomes uncomfortable how melodramatically the filmmakers hope to convince viewers to join their side. In fact, such a heavy handed approach won’t just alienate a huge portion of its audience, but risks exciting sympathy in those that loathe and resent Assange and his actions. That’s a major problem for a film anchored by heated disputes between parties, and in addition to failing to present the material in a complex and stimulating way, it also guts the drama of any potency.
The second factor for enjoying the film, however, rests on an item soon to be mega star Benedict Cumberbatch has openly found deeply troubling: fanboying for him. That’s not to say Cumberbatch’s performance requires some level of fan bias to enjoy, to the contrary, he’s freakishly dead-on as Julian Assange. If the performance seems understated and veering towards unemotive, it’s only because Assange himself wields those traits, and it’s the subtitles in Cumberbatch’s construction that completely sells him as the white haired revolutionary of media and transparency. It isn’t a transformative performance but it has no reason to be, and unlike other actors hoping to rise the Hollywood ranks with showy moments of ‘loud’ acting, he (mostly) plays it straight and cool. Although Assange has publicly denounced the film at every given opportunity and a letter protesting Cumberbatch’s invitation to meet him has gone viral, if he ever submits himself to watching the film, Cumberbatch’s portrayal might be the one thing he enjoys at all. The remaining cast are merely functional, which is a bitter disappointment from so many highly capable performers, such as Daniel Bruhl who recently had a fine turn in Rush, as well as David Thewlis, Stanley Tucci, and Laura Linney.
The reason, then, that fanboying plays a such a crucial role enjoying The Fifth Estate is because outside of the many compliments justly paid to its lead performance, the film fails to accomplish almost everything else it hopes to do. There’s a metaphorical representation of the Wikieleaks site witnessed in the opening credits, an endless business office with shadowed edges and a sand floor, with what’s sure to be hundreds of computers with an assortment of news stories on different monitors. It isn’t an elegant metaphor, and one executed with lackluster production values. For reasons I’m struggling to understand or even identify, the film interrupts the action during crucial “big” moments to return to this venue and seeing the characters interact. This hackneyed attempt at injecting artsy fartsy content into a film lacking any elsewhere represents something much worse than the Wikileaks website, and instead points to the level of misjudged ideas running amok through the film.
Another attempt at flashy visuals comes in the form of heavily digitized opening shots, filled with glitchy pixels and computery static meant to be cute. Ironically, they call to mind an early joke made towards Assange by Bruhl’s Daniel, mocking the hilariously dated graphics in his presentations. That might be okay for powerpoint, but is unforgivable in a major studio movie budgeted at an estimated 30 million dollars. Sure, these two examples are unrelated to the overall aesthetic of the film. But, because they’re both so plainly strange and dated, they harshly clash with the director Bill Condon’s attempt to mimic Greengrass‘ style on the final two Bourne films. Unfortunately, The Fifth Estate never captures the momentum or interest of the many better films it borrows from, and ends up squandering the unique and fascinating true story upon which it is based. So I say fanboy, fanboy hard. Keep your eyes glued to Benedict Cumberbatch from the start of the awkward opening credits ‘till the screen goes dark and you may come out having had a good time. Otherwise, skip it.