The Toronto International Film Festival opener this year was ‘The Fifth Estate’ and admittedly I was pretty psyched for it. But, when I realized that the 30-year anniversary for ‘The Big Chill’ (which won the People’s Choice Award in 1983) was showing at the same time, I decided to wait for the film’s theatrical release. It is now here. And boy, what a disappointment.
Directed by Bill Condon, who helmed the last two ‘Twilight’ films (heh, you won’t see that in the quote adds), and based on two novels about the information-transparency site WikiLeaks, ‘The Fifth Estate’ doesn’t offer anything to interest its viewers until its final twenty minutes (which by then is too little too late).
Benedict Cumberbatch was not much of a household name prior to this year. Mr.Cumberbatch was in three pictures that premiered at the TIFF this year (most people will recognize him as the villain in the latest ‘Star Trek’ movie). I enjoyed his performance as the editor and founder of the WikiLeaks site Julian Assange – the arrogant crusader spin and the intriguingly creepy ambiguity he brings to the character; though the white hair and flamboyant body language are Volturi-esque. The movie focuses on the relationship between Assange and German programmer partner Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Brühl).
Mr.Condon is now tackling more mature material though his MTV filmmaking sensibilities remain pubescent. The sight of seeing someone type away at a computer isn’t all that interesting; but the filmmaker’s fantastical attempts – whenever Julian and Daniel work, they are transported to some sort of sandy beach with a seemingly infinite number of desks and monitors– makes me feel that Mr.Condon hasn’t left the ‘Twilight’ zone. The script is able to create an international drama out of the hacking material, but there is nothing to involve the viewer – the movie is more interested in telling us what happened rather than showing. It supplies the subject, but not the inspiration.
The bouncy camerawork and electronica-filled montages (I recognized ‘M83’) only make the proceedings all the more painful. With a budget of $30 million, the filmmakers have no excuse not to use a steadicam.
The movie doesn’t provide us with a sense of its position on WikiLeaks – how the watchdog site’s unauthorized release of confidential information belittles state secrecy and government accountability. Such equivocation in theory should supply the film with moments of tension; but I would say that this is a muddled attempt at achieving fair-mindedness. The movie showcases the thrill of the WikiLeaks initiative but also points the finger when things have gone too far – this makes it difficult to determine what Mr.Condon is trying to achieve. Instead, the only existing tension is between the filmmaker and the subject. At the very end of ‘The Fifth Estate’, the filmmakers offer Julian Assange a chance to tell us his thoughts about the film. Not the actual Assange – Mr.Cumberbatch. He replies with “*snort* The Anti-Wiki Leaks Movie”. The real-life Mr.Assange has been quoted to call the movie “a reactionary snoozefest that only the U.S. government could love” – him and I aren’t too far off on this one.
To me, it’s ‘The Anti-Social Network’. I admit, I like Aaron Sorkin more than some of you do (I watched eight episodes of ‘The Newsroom’ back to back this past Sunday). Despite whatever reservations you may have, there is no denying that his dialogue crackles with intelligence – the characters in ‘The Social Network’ spoke in a believably elevated way. This movie is in desperate need of that witty writing; there isn’t a single memorable line to be found here. The movie throws a lot at its central character – in terms of the freedom of the press and the future of the media; as good as Cumberbatch is, he just doesn’t have the necessary range to play the XL-version of Assange created by the screenplay. Boring. QED.