Movie review – The Fifth Estate: Geeks and the art of truth sharing

2013-12-08 14:00

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Benedict Cumberbatch has reimagined one of literature’s most famous detectives, Sherlock Holmes; he reanimated one of sci-fi’s most notorious villains, Khan in Star Trek; and he is voicing the necromancer in The Hobbit trilogy.

He’s such hot property, a few weeks back he had a Time magazine cover at the ripe old age of 37.

Cumberbatch is a brilliant actor and it’s only a matter of time before Oscar calls his name, but it probably won’t be for his role as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Not because he isn’t impeccable in the part, but because the film is a little ho-hum.

Director Bill Condon says of the issue and the film: “It may be decades before we understand the full impact of WikiLeaks and how it revolutionised the spread of information. With events still unfolding, this film does not aim to be the conclusive statement on the topic.

“Instead, we set out to create a drama that explores the challenges of transparency and that, we hope, enlivens and enriches the conversations WikiLeaks has provoked.”

He’s absolutely right about WikiLeaks being a seminal moment in the information revolution, and Assange strikes an eccentric figure reigning over and throughout the debate. The trouble with films about internet gurus of any kind (and 2010’s The Social Network had similar problems) is that it’s all about geeks furiously tapping at keyboards, drinking energy drinks and getting smellier which is hardly the stuff of lyrical storytelling and drama.

Condon does touch on the mainstream media in the US having a full go at Assange’s dirty white socks while they should have been slack-jawed over the abuses of power uncovered by WikiLeaks. Alas, with humanity, the devil is always in the detail.

Daniel Brühl plays Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the co-founder of WikiLeaks, on whose book The Fifth Estate is based.

One of the strangest things about this film is how Assange floats in and out of the story, almost like an ethereal messiah.

Berg doesn’t offer, or Condon doesn’t include, any personal detail about the man behind WikiLeaks. He’s a cypher who is as encrypted as the software he designed to protect the whistle-blowers on his site.

His white hair and the fire of the zealot that burns in his eyes for his creation are what sticks with the audience.

Cumberbatch does a fine job of capturing the man’s commitment to his creation, to giving no quarter to anything but the truth – which is, of course, what gets him into so much trouble.

Condon attempts balance with the inclusion of a rather tiresome subplot featuring Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as a pair of US foreign office workers who must race to save diplomatic face and the lives of US “assets” across the world as the documents leak.

What it ends up being is a rather forced exercise and, though its purpose is to show what damage a free information flow can do, it ends up being a bit of a lesson in not writing down (or emailing) stuff you wouldn’t want even your mother to know.

For those in the media business, the most interesting part of this film is how newspapers were outscooped by WikiLeaks before righting themselves, and being able to use their reputations and skills to sift through the information and create meaning, proving what we all know – raw data without context just doesn’t have the same shock value.

The Fifth Estate was made for $28?million (R294?million), but failed to get to the $4?million mark at the US box-office on its opening.

I guess the Facebook movie was just about all people could take of watching smelly geeks write code and celebrate with Red Bull.

»?The Fifth Estate opens on Friday

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