Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Fifth Estate Movie Review

We’ve set up our society in the midst of the digital information age in such a way that we want everything and we want it now and if you have the opportunity to provide something and make an impact, you’d better do it this instant before someone beats you to it. There’s no prize for the guy who sits on an idea and gets beaten to the punch by his competitor. There’s no recognition for having had the idea first. Action counts. News works this way. Because of the Internet and 24 hour cable news there is no longer as much emphasis placed on getting a breaking story right as there is on just getting it out. The result is new reporting that is often shoddy, under-sourced, and sometimes entirely inaccurate.

I’m on the brink of making a two-pronged point here about The Fifth Estate, Bill Condon’s take on Wikileaks, its founder Julian Assange, and the consequences of releasing unredacted top secret documents to the public. The first is that Wikileaks is an organization competing for the same attention as the other media outlets and so they don’t want to get scooped any more than someone else. My point also refers to the very production of The Fifth Estate itself, only two years after the events depicted took place. This is a fairly modern phenomenon, the production of Hollywood movies on real life stories that have barely wrapped in the headlines. Zero Dark Thirty is the prime example, but there was also United 93 and World Trade Center, which were made while the memories of those events were still fresh and sore in our minds.

I guess I would like some distance of maybe a decade at least to allow the story to sink in and for analysis from multiple angles to fester and breed the accepted narrative. When a movie comes out on a subject that was widely reported to the world and happened during the watch of the current sitting president, something feels so strange. It lacks a distancing effect that I’m accustomed to with historical films. None of this, of course, is the fault of either Condon or Josh Singer, who adapted the story from two different books. It’s not a flaw in the movie, but it is an undeniable feeling I had while watching it.

The plot of The Fifth Estate chronicles the two years prior to the release of Bradley Manning’s files through Wikileaks, a massive document dump that was simultaneously published by The Guardian, The New York Times, and Der Spiegel heavily redacted. Then Assange released all of it with no editing whatsoever. The central conflict is over the responsibility of a journalist to the public, the subjects of his stories, and to the personal ethic of the media outlet. Newspapers like The Guardian are ultimately answerable to someone, a fact that keeps them from running roughshod. Assange would say that’s exactly what makes their reporting suspect. His Wikileaks has as its modus operandi to never edit or redact anything given it by their anonymous sources. But when that material contains private and often embarrassing communications between State Department officials including the identities of countless informants the world over, Assange’s friend and partner Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) fundamentally disagrees and is dismissed from the organization. He wrote one of the two books on which the film is based.

Before the Manning files, Assange and Domscheit-Berg are like two freedom fighting peas in a pod, fighting for transparency in large organizations. Assange seems to have no life outside of Wikileaks. He shows up at Daniel’s apartment unannounced and hogs all the attention, which pisses of Daniel’s girlfriend Anke (Alicia Vikander) to no end. If this weren’t a true story I almost would have expected it to turn out that Assange was Daniel’s alter-ego a la Fight Club.

And that brings me to a truly fascinating connection because so much of the way Condon directs the film reminded me of a David Fincher film. It often looks like a lesser rip-off of The Social Network. The way Berg imagines himself working amid a sea of desks manned by hundreds of Wikileaks volunteers, until he learns the organization consists of no one besides himself and Julian, at which point that fantasy image shifts to him working alone amid a sea of Julians. These type of visual flourishes crop up periodically throughout the film, but never quite gel into a cohesive scheme. Because Condon is so focused on recreating facts and connecting all the dots, he sort of forgets to craft a compelling main character. The philosophical conflict itself takes center stage rather than any emotional connection to either Daniel or Julian.

Brühl is a fine actor and he’s convincing with a character that is somewhat underwritten. How overwhelming a figure must Assange be that he is still the star of the show in a film based on a book from Domscheit-Berg’s perspective? David Thewlis and Peter Capaldi put in solid, though brief, appearances as editors at The Guardian newspaper and Laura Linney as an executive at the State Department, with Stanley Tucci as a colleague. Singer’s screenplay wisely eschews depictions of such characters as then Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama (except in stock footage), which would have provided more of a distraction than anything else. As far as I can tell, Shaw is a fictional character, obviously made to resemble Secretary Clinton. Her presence provides the American government perspective on Assange’s actions, which not only make diplomats bow their heads in shame, but also puts a close friend of Shaw’s in serious danger in Libya, thus putting a human face on the possibly tragic consequences of Wikileaks’ mission. Benedict Cumberbatch is the standout among the cast. In addition to allowing some entrance into Assange’s inner turmoil (he’s apparently had a bizarre and turbulent life from early childhood), he embodies the man’s physicality with uncanny ability. He harnesses Assange’s movement, the way he shifts his weight awkwardly or wrings his hands nervously. I occasionally had to recall Assange’s real face in my mind to remind myself I was watching an actor.

In considering the way the US government officials are depicted in the film, maybe The Fifth Estate is not entirely without an opinion on Assange. They are given scenes and speeches that make good argumentative sense, not exactly the mark of a screenwriter out to demonize someone. The people coming into this film with no knowledge of the story and no opinion on anything are unlikely to learn enough to change their lack of position. Those who vilify him are likely to see the justification for their animosity. The people who love him and all he stands for will see it as a rallying cry around his cause. There is certainly an extent to which Assange comes out looking like a self-serving pompous anarchist, but there’s enough in the film to keep his supporters from being alienated. That’s the film’s biggest problem at the end of the day – it’s so flimsy and wishy-washy, the result of not wishing to confound or offend, that it ends up being sort of toothless and dull.

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