The opening sequence of The Fifth Estate is compelling. In it, we are taken on a brief but exciting cinematic journey through the history of the transmission of information, from the creation of writing, through the development of the printing press and then the telegraph, to our current modern condition of fully wired interconnectedness.
Sadly, the rest of the film satisfies neither the expectations set up by this sequence, nor the obviously compelling real life story of Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), his sidekick Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl) and the development of Wikileaks that the movie tells.
It would seem that the story of Wikileaks and its eccentric founder Julian Assange would translate well into a compelling cinematic narrative in the context of today’s obsession with the Internet, privacy, and the machinations of international politics. It is undeniable that technological innovation has created a never-before achieved accessibility for the vast quantities of privileged information that were previously only accessible to the few.
This state of affairs has raised serious ethical questions for those with the technical skill to anonymously upload secret information that may then be shared with any person on the globe with an Internet connection. While the aim may be a democratisation of information, there nonetheless remains a hierarchy of those with the nouse to make something like Wikileaks happen. And we learn, yet again, nouse frequently comes with ego.
Sadly, this may be a case where the intense interest garnered in real life outstrips that of its dramatisation. There are elements of All the President’s Men in this film, but Bill Condon’s take doesn’t come close to matching the depth and suspense of that classic movie (despite a reference to Woodward and Bernstein). Perhaps this is because the film tries to do too much.
The Fifth Estate reaches for, but falls short of, a Bourne-like aesthetic, while at the same time trying to fold in the complex psychologies of the protagonists. Unfortunately, this worthy ambition falls flat and ultimately feels reductive. While the technological leap to digital dissemination, encryption and mirrored servers certainly offers a new and potentially exciting paradigm, both narratively and aesthetically, here it fails to move the viewer in anything like the way Newman and Hoffman did with their paper notebooks and old-fashioned door knocking.
What the film does do well is acknowledge the complex ethical questions inherent in today’s technological infrastructure. To be able to encourage encrypted whistle-blowers to upload sensitive information is a different skill than that of an investigative journalist writing a story based on the information she collects. The drive to dump raw private data on the Internet may emerge from a simple precept that “transparency is good”, when in fact the consequences are more subtle and complex than that. Both the traditional yet experienced journalists at The Guardian and the anarchic hackers might find they have a lot to learn from each other.
Ultimately, this film doesn’t seem to have decided whether it is a psychological character drama, a modern thriller, or a docudrama, and it suffers for this confusion. Had it gone one way or another, it surely would have been criticised for leaving out these other angles, but would probably have been richer for its focus. In the end, it fails to impress on any of these individual levels, though it does remain an interesting, if fairly mediocre, watch for a rainy Sunday afternoon.
The Fifth Estate is released on DVD and Blu Ray on 17th February 2014.
See the trailer here: