There is an intelligent and intriguing tale waiting to be told about the ever-expanding world of information technology that we live in and the security pitfalls that come with reliance on that technology. The Fifth Estate awkwardly attempts to tell that story, but unfortunately ends up being just a bungled biography of WikiLeaks and its notorious founder, Julian Assange.
Right out of the gate, unless you’ve studied journalism history (which I have not), the ponderous title of “The Fifth Estate” will most likely leave you scratching your head; but after doing some “investigative journalism” myself I can report that the name is an obscure reference to the “Fourth Estate,” a term used to describe the gallery of reporters who documented British parliamentary proceedings in the late eighteenth-century.
It is said that parliament consisted of “Three Estates,” The Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Commons, and that the print press was the “Fourth Estate” and was considered almost as powerful as the other official parts of government. “The Fifth Estate” is considered to be the modern electronic version of the “people’s” press that includes websites like WikiLeaks.
So (back to the movie review), the title explanation is as convoluted at the film’s narrative, and is only touched on briefly at the end. The movie starts with a very promising and interesting visual history of human communications, from cave drawings to the iPhone, then meanders into an array of false starts and disjointed sequences, as if it was a buggy program that has not been thoroughly tested.
After the nice intro, we are introduced to computer hacker Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) as he enlists his associate, Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl), to assist him with his WikiLeaks whistle-blower protection initiative. Berg is at first fascinated with Assange and hypnotized by his free society speeches, but by the end of the film he finds the man to be a charlatan and a liar, albeit one with high ideals.
A film about pioneers of information technology is bound to include a lot of computer usage, but people clacking away at keyboards while looking at monitors filled with text messages is about as exciting as watching the electronic grass grow in SimCity. I know I’m being a curmudgeon, but movie keyboard-clicking sound effects drive me crazy – and The Fifth Estate has a lot of it.
This film also has a lot of arty symbolism that I’m sure is supposed to represent the massive WikiLeaks infrastructure that is depicted as being only in Assange’s head. Scenes with hundreds of desktop computers set up on the beach in his mind were out of place and a misguided distraction from the rest of the movie. As directed by Bill Condon, The Fifth Estate has more in common with his terrible Twilight Saga films than his Academy Award winning Gods and Monsters.
On a high note, Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Assange was spot-on for my money (from what I’ve seen of the real man in television interviews anyway), and even though the character has more than a few goofy moments, Cumberbatch addresses real people as if he’s speaking for the infamous hacker is very odd, but in keeping with the rest of this gawkish film. Grade: 3/10