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The Fifth Estate
Touchstone Pictures
The Fifth Estate
Our Rating
1½ Stars - Weak
Average Rating
(4 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (For language and some violence.)
Directed By
Bill Condon
Run Time
2 hours 8 minutes
Peter Capaldi, David Thewlis, Anatole Taubman, Alexander Beyer
Theatre Release
October 18, 2013 by Touchstone Pictures

When good movies have flaws, they disguise them well enough that you don't think about them till the next day, or next viewing, or tenth viewing, or at very least the car-ride home. But The Fifth Estate barrels like a juggernaut through every single suspension cable of belief, and the movie collapses under its own weight once you realize that all of this is pretty silly, isn't it, and leave the theater pretty sure that wasn't a good movie at all.

It's never so egregious that you tune out entirely, and is not apathetic in the way Grown-Ups 2 is: a movie that is not intelligent or "good" in any sense, and doesn't care. No, The Fifth Estate tries to do a lot, and be a lot, and it fails on almost every front.

Maybe "silly" is a strange word to use to describe a movie that is being hotly debated by both pro- and anti-Assange camps, but it's totally appropriate. Daniel (Daniel Brühl) is roped into an organization started by Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), WikiLeaks—a website devoted to allowing whistleblowers to reveal confidential information without fear of reprise or backlash.

Dan Stevens in The Fifth Estate
Touchstone Pictures

Dan Stevens in The Fifth Estate

As they work together, Daniel learns more about Assange's past, motivations, and desires, and falls out of love and favor with the Aussie. Things come to a head when WikiLeaks gets its hands on 250,000 leaked U.S. diplomatic cables and Army reports from the Pentagon. Assange feels compelled to release the documents as-is, claiming that "editing reveals bias." Daniel, in contrast, thinks that their primary obligation is to redact names so as to protect the people who may be hurt as a result of their disclosure.

The Fifth Estate can't decide what kind of movie it wants to be. Is it the "initiate is brought into circle, only to reject it upon moral revelation" film, a la The Lost Boys? Is it techno-drama writ large, like Swordfish? A celebration of the anarchic spirit, like Fight Club? A biopic of a misunderstood aloof genius, like The Social Network?

It clearly wants very badly to be this last one, but its script forbids it from honing in on any genre, so it settles for being a hodgepodge of dramatic moments cribbed from more solid, better films. It falls prey to the predominate narrative trap for biopics (or even semi-biopics): since you can't easily choreograph a tidy beginning-rising action-climax-denouement plot structure from a true story (especially one that is very much still happening), it just becomes a montage of Things That Happened, events that aren't really exciting, or even causally related.

It also struggles with how it's going to treat its technocentric subject matter. A better director would have realized that either the technology needed to be central to the story, or waved away as "not what we're going to focus on right now" in favor of the characters (as in The Social Network, or in that scene from Looper where Bruce Willis shuts down any questions Joseph Gordon-Levitt—and by extension the audience—have about the mechanics of time-travel).

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The Fifth Estate