‘Fifth Estate’ takes time to pick up steam

‘Fifth Estate’ takes time to pick up steam

By Karsten Burgstahler

For journalists who wish the truth were a lot more accessible, the idea of Julian Assange’s Wikileaks is a romantic one.

For the government that must deal with its secrets being spilled, it is a nightmare.

Director Bill Condon’s “The Fifth Estate” (Rated R; 128 Min.) attempts to show both sides of the story. It takes him about half of the movie to find his footing, which certainly makes the movie plod. But once he finds stable ground during the second hour the movie becomes an absorbing drama.


For those who did not follow the story closely, Assange was a hacker who designed Wikileaks, a website dedicated to exposing cover-ups and giving anonymous sources a safe haven to reveal wrongdoings without having to worry about being exposed. Assange began working with Daniel Berg, another hacker who respected what Assange was trying to accomplish. The site is best known for the leak of thousands of classified documents from the American government that contained names of informants whose lives could have been put in danger. The site also released a video of soldiers firing on unarmed civilians, including several Reuters journalists.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who is quickly making a name for himself in America, plays Assange but seems to hold back in his performance. Cumberbatch certainly is not fully to blame for this. Josh Singer’s adaptation is trying so hard to be Aaron Sorkin’s “The Social Network” to no avail. As Assange, Cumberbatch is given some interesting dialogue but is not given enough to fully flesh out the character. The relationship between Assange and Berg (played by Daniel Bruhl) never really crackles.

Condon also relies on awkward montages to power the film’s first half. Several times he enters “cyberspace” to give the audience representation of Wikileaks as an office building with only Assange and Berg in it. Condon is trying to make a statement with it, but instead it just makes the film feel cluttered with half-developed ideas. The characters take a backseat to numerous shots of newspaper articles and telecasts, which move so fast it is not even worth trying to read them. Condon is clearly stuck in “Twilight” mode for a while (He directed both Part 1 and 2 of “Breaking Dawn”).

But a funny thing happens when the film finally reaches the big story: the release of American documents — It is like the movie missed its alarm to wake up and overslept an hour. All of a sudden the film begins to bring up questions of ethics and morality it never suggested in the first half and starts to elicit interesting performances from its cast. Earlier on Assange insisted on giving everyone anonymity and making his site as foolproof as possible. Once he gets the largest leak in American history he is fine with publishing without redacting names. Cumberbatch really gets to shine as Assange becomes lost in his own ego. Assange claims the movie exaggerates his story. Obviously the only people who will ever truly know are Assange and Berg.

During the second half, Condon realizes that the true events are a lot more interesting than his earlier ruminations of Assange’s behavior because he does not have an intricate script for Cumberbatch to build on. But Cumberbatch does seem to thrive on the excitement of the final act, as several newspapers scramble to prepare the reports to release alongside Wikileak’s newest documents. If the whole movie had this same electricity, “Fifth Estate” would probably be among the best thrillers of the year. Alas, Condon’s characters just do not get an opportunity to spread their wings and elevate the final product.

If you can stand a slow start, the thriller “Fifth Estate” eventually blossoms into is certainly an interesting one — at the very least it will provide an ethics conversation for your dinner table. I did just be nice if Condon had taken full advantage of the tense true story he was presented.