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New Release Review - The Fifth Estate

Dramatization of the 'WikiLeaks' affair.


Directed by: Bill Condon
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Carice van Houten, Anthony Mackie, Stanley Tucci, Peter Capaldi, Laura Linney, David Thewlis



Disgruntled German computer whiz Daniel Berg (Bruhl) meets Aussie activist/hacker Julian Assange (Cumberbatch) at a technology convention and immediately the two men form a partnership, intent on using their computer know-how to expose global corruption. Their first target is a Swiss bank, followed by Kenyan warlords and soon their website, WikiLeaks, is the envy of mainstream media outlets. When a U.S soldier gives Assange access to thousands of secret U.S government documents, the publication of which could put thousands of informants' lives at risk, Berg realizes Assange's intentions may not be as noble as he once believed.
In bringing the story of Julian Assange and his notorious website to the big screen, director Bill Condon and writer Josh Singer face three large obstacles. Firstly, how do you tell a story that's so fresh in the public's mind while keeping the viewer's interest for two hours? Their answer to this is to turn Assange and Berg into a modern day Woodward and Bernstein and plant them in the middle of a Jason Bourne type thriller. It's an approach that often comes off as laughable; at times the film feels like a spoof of modern espionage thrillers, all quick zooms and rapid cuts, with the names of glamorous cities flashing up onscreen in the standard digitized font.
This brings us to the second obstacle. Whether you think technology has improved our lives or not, it's certainly made the world a far duller place. If a seventies thriller like 'All the President's Men' were made today, half the movie would feature Hoffman and Redford "googling", ala 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo', a movie whose protagonist spent so much time in front of a PC screen that it played like overseeing a teenager's homework. Computers don't make for good cinema and many film-makers have come a cropper trying to make the use of keyboards and mice seem interesting. Condon seems to have taken the 1995 movie 'Hackers' as his template; everyone in the film looks like they belong in a nineties tree-hugging commune and whenever someone sits at a keyboard we get banging techno on the soundtrack in a deluded attempt to make it seem exciting. Most hilarious of all is how Condon visualizes the WikiLeaks network as an outdoor field filled with rows of PC terminals like an eighties Atari commercial. I can't help think Condon wore his obligatory director's baseball cap backwards, to help him "get down with the kids".
The third obstacle, and the one that could have been the trickiest, is to keep audiences engaged with a character as unlikable as Assange. This is where casting almost saves the film. Cumberbatch is fantastic here; I haven't seen an actor embody a character so fully since Christian Bale's breakthrough in 'American Psycho'. As the conscience of the movie, Bruhl does his best but it's a poorly written character, one reliant on the usual "in too deep" cliches of the thriller genre. Likewise Vikander, a Danish actress I predict will become a big Hollywood star in the coming years; her character is one of those awful put-upon girlfriend stereotypes. Linney is great as always, and credit to the film-makers for avoiding the easy route of making her the sort of cold bitchy government type you might expect from this tale.
The film's highlight comes in a post-credit stinger that sees Cumberbatch as Assange expressing his unhappiness at the film we're watching. Unfortunately, you'll have to endure two hours of unoriginal, at times unintentionally amusing, tedium. 
5/10


Eric Hillis