Beer or Box Office: ‘The Fifth Estate’ doesn’t give its subject the treatment it deserves

This movie review was originally published at USA TODAY COLLEGE on Oct. 21, 2013. Photo found here.

The Fifth Estate had the worst box office debut of 2013.

And it didn’t have to be that way.

It’s a decent film about a difficult topic, and the film is very ambitious in what it tries to be — it just doesn’t always live up to those ambitions.

Bill Condon directs the story about Julian Assange, the man who created WikiLeaks, beginning with a creative montage showing how media has progressed over the centuries, starting with ancient hieroglyphics and ending with the advent of the Internet.

It then jumps right in, beginning with the 2010 Bradley Manning scandal, when the U.S. Army private gave documents to WikiLeaks that soon became public. The film then backtracks to explain how WikiLeaks, and the man who started it, became so infamous.

We first see Assange at a conference trying to market his new website to potential donors. He sees WikiLeaks as a place where whistleblowers can leak information free of retribution.

Daniel Berg, a computer hacker stuck at a dead end job, meets up with Assange at the conference and is lured into the prospect of exposing corruption “wherever it exists.” He begins to help Assange with his donor presentations, and a new business partnership is born.

The relationship between Assange and Berg — portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl, respectively — is the reason to see this film.

Cumberbatch manages to make you sympathize with Assange just enough to make you feel like he has noble intentions despite sounding like a cult leader, and Brühl’s restrained performance as the moral center of the pair is a great contrast to Cumberbatch’s dynamic work.

It’s an interesting character study.

Assange is a whistle-blower because of the impact that corruption and accountability had on his childhood. No corruption is too small to be exposed. Berg becomes a whistleblower because he feels like the world should have more transparency, and then balks when he realizes he won’t go to the lengths Assange will to expose the corrupt.

The moments where they clash are the best of the film.

If that summary sounds similar to another recent tech film about a pair of young people that built an online empire, well … you wouldn’t be wrong to point it out.

The Fifth Estate tries hard to be The Social Network. It should have tried harder.

If it truly wanted to imitate The Social Network, it would have focused more on the two lead actors. Instead, it tends to focus on the information that the characters are leaking, with mixed results.

The film’s climax revolves around the leaked Bradley Manning documents and how the mainstream media reports it. A scene where staff members of The New York Times and The Guardian communicate with one another to decode the Manning documents is fun to watch, if only for the thrill of seeing a newsroom in action.

Other scenes, like a virtual realization of the chat room that Assange and Berg use to communicate, fall flat. The special effects are out of date and those scenes pander to the audience instead of enhancing the experience.

The film as a whole seems rushed — so rushed that it doesn’t know if it wants to be a documentary, a character study or WikiLeaks’s origin story.

The film’s release comes only three years after the events it portrays actually happened, and it isn’t treated with the same “ripped from the headlines” urgency of something like Zero Dark Thirty.

It wants to be ambitious and important, and falls short of its goals.

Which is a shame, because WikiLeaks, like the assassination of Bin Laden, is something that will define the next generation of American thought. In many ways, it already has.

Subject matter this important deserves a film equally as important. The Fifth Estate is not it.

Jake Harris is a senior journalism major at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX.

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