Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 28, 2014)
With a tale ripped from the headlines – and with a rising young star in the lead – one might’ve expected 2013’s The Fifth Estate to become a hit. Nope – it got generally weak reviews and despite a fairly wide release, it mustered a mere $3 million at the box office.
Despite these negatives, I figured Estate had enough potential to give it a look. After a 2010 prologue to show the impact of WikiLeaks – a group that publishes classified/secret information on the Internet – we go back to 2007 to view its formation. At a Berlin conference devoted to “chaos communication”, Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl) meet up and further their human rights agenda.
Both had been involved in exposing “global corruption” on a smaller scale, but now they set their sights higher. With Julian as the “idea man” and Daniel the head of technology, they team to spread their philosophy of informational freedom. We follow those exploits and the repercussions that come with their endeavors.
Within the Assange/WikiLeaks story, there’s a good movie to be made. Unfortunately, Estate isn’t that film, largely because I think it takes the wrong approach to the subject.
At its heart, Estate wants to be All the President’s Men. It treats the material in a semi-documentary fashion and tries to draw us into the tale via dramatic intrigue and a thriller framework.
That worked for President’s Men because the narrative suited it. Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation started slowly and built to a crescendo, which allowed the film to develop real drama.
On the other hand, Estate lacks much of the same natural suspense and tension. Why treat the material as a thriller? I have no idea, as the tale suits a more character-based feel ala Social Network.
Instead of that take on the material, director Bill Condon tries his best to turn a tale of two guys on laptops into a Bourne flick. He makes everything as urgent as urgent can be; we get incessant use of shaky handheld camerawork along with pulsing music and rapid-fire cuts.
At times, the story may deserve this treatment, as it does get into threats encountered by its participants. Too much of the time, however, the filmmaking techniques feel like forced attempts to convince us we’ve found an exciting, vital story.
We haven’t – at least not as depicted here. As I mentioned, a more natural bio-pic depiction ala Social Network might’ve succeeded, but Condon’s choice to make this a thriller flops.
Estate also spreads itself far too thin, as it delves into a slew of extraneous and distracting subplots. Areas that should appear as brief asides become major diversions and don’t contribute to the story. Perhaps those would’ve worked in a longer mini-series approach, but in a two-hour-ish edition, they end up as superfluous and superficial.
Which means Estate misuses an excellent cast. In addition to those already mentioned, we find talents such as Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie and Stanley Tucci, all of whom get to do precisely bupkis. Perhaps the movie cut down their parts and they would’ve been more useful in a longer edition, but as it stands, they feel wasted.
As for our lead, Cumberbatch delivers a fairly interesting portrayal of Assange, but I can’t claim he helps us understand the character. That’s mostly the script’s fault, though. The screenplay engages in some pop psychological views of Assange but never gives us an idea of what makes him tick.
All of these elements leave Estate as a major disappointment. With an intriguing story and plenty of talent both in front of and behind the camera, this should’ve turned into a top-notch drama. Instead, it tries desperately to entertain us despite its absence of substance.