For a film that reminds use over and over that this is a whole new world, this movie feels awfully familiar.
Bill Condon's film about WikiLeaks, the free speech haven and/or "up against the wall motherf**ker” activism website (depending on your point of view) is somewhat simpatico with the actions of its leader, Julian Assange. Bluntly, it does some things right, some things wrong, and isn't afraid to take an inelegant info dump and dust off its hands.
The first hour of “The Fifth Estate” blazes by, summarizing the major bullet points of what Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch, absolutely outstanding here) accomplished prior to the publication of Bradley Manning's Lady Gaga disc of state secrets. He worked for a more democratic process in Africa, appeared at hacker conventions and hung around some of the most ridiculously designed high-tech raver squats in movie history. Early on he meets Danny (Daniel Bruhl), something of the Henry Hill in this situation.
Danny is seduced by Assange's charm and prophetic style of speech, but in time he realizes that the entire WikiLeaks operation is a house of cards. Assange merely talks a good line of b.s., however his underlying thesis - that if technology could create a way for whistleblowers to truly remain anonymous they could topple any institution - starts to catch on.
Danny, who begins the movie with a job and a love interest, quickly finds himself IN TOO DEEP. We learn this because he does a lot of brow-furrowing in front of his computer. (Props to Condon: for a movie that devotes a significant amount of its time to watching people type, it stays visually expressive.)
Assange may be a genius but as is often the case he's a megalomaniac. (Spoiler Alert: he dyes his hair that way.) When Danny starts to get some of his own press in Wired Magazine, it's creates a wedge. During the fun, early months of WikiLeaks they were merely taking down banks. But when third world political regimes start taking out vengeance hits, the site's determination to post un-edited leaked incriminating documents becomes more serious. By the time Manning's megaupload arrives, conference calls on Air Force One begin.
“The Fifth Estate”’s screenwriter is one Josh Singer, who has some credits from “The West Wing.” It's surprising, because when I was watching Laura Linney' State Department character I felt like it was seeing a classic Allison Janney C.J. Cregg scene put through a derpification device. There are at least three times she is condemned to drop dead-weight lines about how "this is a new kind of battle." It's kind've embarrassing, as is the shoe-horned B-story (really C-story) of Alexander Siddig as the nice guy Middle Eastern man put "at risk" by Assange's refusal to take more time to redact Manning's leak. (Don't worry about Siddig - this isn't "Fair Game." He ends up fine, making his whole section particularly useless.)
I'm not much of a computer hacker, so I can't speak to the verisimilitude of all those black screen laptops and non-user friendly chat clients, but I will say that the way hacker culture is presented is an absolute joke. “The Fifth Estate” goes out of its way to reinforce every stereotype my 70-year-old mother (who barely knows how to e-mail) has. Pass the energy drink.
The best moments come when we see the old school press - namely David Thewlis and Peter Capaldi representing the Guardian - trying to adapt their journalistic ethics to a world with expanded technology. Thewlis gives a very cutting speech about the importance of perception in society. Indeed, when more people are talking about the fact that Bradley Manning wants to be called Chelsea rather than the damning evidence he showed the world, it is rather telling.
Thewlis also gives a speech about the importance of the press, traditionally called The Fourth Estate, but then talks about this "new way," takes a dramatic pause and says "this Fifth Estate." So, yeah, it's that kind of movie.
SCORE: 5.8 / 10