October 17, 2013
One challenge facing screenwriters and directors today towers above the rest. It is this: How do you make something vital and interesting out of a story of guys, in a sweat, looking at keyboards?
"The Social Network" solved the problem by, among other means, being extremely selective in how much screen time was devoted to actual screen time. That movie concerned Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and what screenwriter Aaron Sorkin saw as his grim moral compromises on the way to making "friend" the world's most heinous verb.
"The Fifth Estate," directed by Bill Condon, deals with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, currently living in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London so as to avoid extradition to Sweden on allegations of rape and sexual assault. The film doesn't get into any of those problems. It's focused, rather, on the tetchy relationship between Assange and his startup and keep-it-going colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg, played by Daniel Bruhl.
These two are on laptops a lot. Condon depicts various sequences as part of a visual fantasy, with the main characters inhabiting a vast office space with infinite desks and monitors. Flashy, overeager transitional sequences locate the action in Iceland, or Belgium, while streams of data come flying at our heads. It's an eyeful. But it's desperation disguised as style.
A computer hacker by training and temperament and a free-speech hero in his own eyes (and the eyes of many others), Assange started WikiLeaks as a safe haven for sensitive data and secret government documents, most notoriously the Afghan war documents leak. Much of the picture is built on the clash of new-school hot dogs such as Assange and old-school journalistic values, embodied by The Guardian and The New York Times, which entered into an uneasy publishing agreement with Assange regarding the secret diplomatic cables.
As in Sorkin's script for "The Social Network," "Fifth Estate" screenwriter Josh Singer (working from two different nonfiction accounts disputed by Assange) has concocted a morality tale of a working friendship gone sour. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Australian-born nomad Assange with an artful combination of louche, out-of-it arrogance and perpetual distrustworthiness. He's a witty actor, and this certainly is his year, appearing in the latest "Star Trek" film and "12 Years a Slave," and the forthcoming "August: Osage County." Here, though, the conception of the character is very narrow, and the film doesn't give Cumberbatch much wiggle room within its wormy parameters.
Bruhl appears to have been cast in "The Fifth Estate" for his ability to close down a laptop and bolt out of a chair in less than two seconds. He fares acceptably well, but in the current "Rush" and "The Fifth Estate" Bruhl doesn't have enough of what it takes (in English, anyway) to co-anchor a film. Yet.
Around these two various other characters spin, including composite U.S. State Department figures played by Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci. We're snowed by a great deal of intersecting and crisscrossing information in "The Fifth Estate," and Singer's script lacks organizational skills. I can relate. But that doesn't make parsing this busy film, or — crucially — its true, contradictory feelings about Assange any easier.
"The Fifth Estate" - 2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language and some violence)
Running time: 2:04
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