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.
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).
But because The Social Network's looming shadow hangs heavy over the movie, Condon (whose recent work includes Kinsey, Dreamgirls, and both halves of Twilight: Breaking Dawn) feels compelled to illustrate how Assange's technology works via poorly-animated fantasy sequences.
To wit—the network of servers is represented as a giant open-roof warehouse, filled with desks that are staffed by (alternatingly): figures with blacked-out faces, Assange himself, or Daniel and his comrades in destruction. At one point, the warehouse becomes a vast desolate Mordor-like wasteland for Assange to walk through, as shot from above. While Daniel and Assange are texting each other, the words they're texting are projected onto their face, as well as, once or twice, inexplicably subtitled.
Add to this list a steady stream of jerky camera shots, flashy introductory cards, and weird cinematographic tricks, and you start to see that The Fifth Estate is trying so transparently to be cool and edgy and ambitious (like that Other Film) that it never even comes close to achieving those hopes. All of this is exactly as silly and groan-inducing onscreen as it sounds.
Perhaps the most towering flaw in the movie is Daniel Brühl's performance, which is so inconceivably bad that I almost couldn't believe it during the movie. I'm not sure if he was trying to affect some sort of German stoicism, but it never works—his character expresses anger by talking in a slightly louder pinched, staccato voice; his sad face involves staring off past the camera, eyes dead still, looking vaguely schlubby. There is not a single moment of anything that could come close to being described as "acting" from Brühl at any moment in the film.
This is a huge problem, because, while Assange is arguably the focus of the film, it's all told through the eyes of Daniel-the-everyman, who is also supposed to be the moral pillar of the film. But he's terrible, and unconvincing, and one-dimensional, and annoying. It's really, really weird—acting this profoundly bad rarely makes it into a major commercial film.
It doesn't help that The Fifth Estate's script is similarly bad: moments intended to be profound are telegraphed as such from so far away that their punch is completely minimized. It gets to the point where any time a character pulls Assange aside to talk to him, or confronts him while alone, you know you're in for another Assange Monologue in which he'll discuss his tortured past or tortured motivations or tortured existence—it's all very wooden. And lame.
The only three actors to rise above the script are the exact three you'd expect to do so: Benedict Cumberbatch, and, in a smaller way, Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney. Cumberbatch manages to evoke in Assange a character torn between extremes: anarchism vs. totalitarianism, informational philanthropy vs. self-aggrandizing attention, isolation vs. social immersion, and so on. And he makes all those tensions feel not like disparities, but like expressions of the same broken, confused person. Real-life Julian Assange complains that the movie is unreliable and paints him badly, but he's maybe the only relatable character in the whole movie—not because he's likable, but because he's the only one that feels like a complete human being.
This is all very frustrating as a viewer, but furthermore, it's a huge missed opportunity. A film like this, about a hot-button story like this, should have provoked a lot of discussion about journalistic responsibility and privacy and government corruption and the changing media landscape and more. The Fifth Estate (and especially David Thewlis' closing monologue) seems to want to address all these things. But it's so confused about what it is and what it wants—and doesn't know how to do any of what it thinks it wants—that it can't be the spark that lights the gas.
Furthermore, it's worth wondering whether film (more or less a medium that lets you turn the excesses of TV up to 11) could ever accurately portray Assange. This is a man who thinks that TV and film are, by their very nature, flawed. Can the "fourth estate" critique the alleged fifth?
Perhaps the most damning critique of the film comes from within. During his final try-hard "inspirational" monologue, the Guardian reporter-character played by David Thewlis says to Daniel, "You should start where every good story starts: at the beginning."
It's awfully telling that The Fifth Estate opens in medias res.
Characters use occasional language like "s--t" and "d-mn"; there are a few instances of "f--k." Daniel and his girlfriend are interrupted before they can have sex, but things get a bit steamy. No nudity, though. Two characters are shot repeatedly in the chest—it isn't extremely gory, but it's shocking and visceral. There's some footage from wars and bombings, including brief footage from the 9-11 attacks.
Jackson Cuidon is a writer in New York City. You can follow him on his semi-annually updated Twitter account: @jxscott