“The Fifth Estate”
Directed by Bill Condon
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Jamie Blackley, Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci
Biography, Drama
128 Mins

The best part about The Fifth Estate was the cheeseburger I ate before the movie. The bun was nicely toasted, hugging two juicy patties each pressed with a layer of cheese, topped with caramelized onions and the gentle spice of jalapeños. It was superb. The movie though was the antithesis of that burger. It was crap. Utter, unadulterated, “pee-a-little-in-your-pants because you’re laughing so hard in its face” crap.

The dead horse-beating script is the easiest clunker to point fingers at for its “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” tactile approach, but that quick analysis fails to recognize the full scope of how truly horrendous every element of this movie is. The consistently confused directing, entirely bumbling, borderline hack acting, and total lack of vision – all backed by one of the worst scores I’ve heard in ages – each land with a thud on the lowest tier of story-telling prowess.  The Fifth Estate‘s saving grace is that it has a good shot at winning the excuse, “It’s so bad, it’s good” from more forgiving moviegoers.

Whether the intent of the movie is to herald the importance of Julian Assange and his brainchild Wikilieaks or condemn him is unclear throughout. Even by the film’s conclusion, it’s hard to decipher if those in charge support Julian’s cause or just can’t stand him – an amazing feat for a movie that stretches well over two-hours. The intention may have been to land in some kind of moral gray zone but somewhere along the line moral complication got mixed up with poor storytelling, and the result is The Fifth Estate.

Wikileak’s contributions to revolutionizing how information is shared was groundbreaking – the way in which that story here is told is anything but. For a film that celebrates innovation, it’s amazing how stale its telling is. Montages set to thumping electronic beats detail Julian typing on a computer, driving in a car, walking down the street, typing even more on his laptop, and opening doors as if it were breathless entertainment. At times, it seems as if Bill Condon bumped his head and woke up thinking he was making a Bourne-style thriller.

Condon also hasn’t quite shaken out of his vampire gloves coming out of the ring of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part One and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part Two as the Assange onscreen is a lot like Bella. Brooding and touchy, he’s a one-note nincompoop with the depth of skinny jean’s pockets…girl’s skinny jean’s pockets. Having a conversation with Assange results in hearing about one of his many accomplishments or an oddly timed confession about the challenges peppering his life.

As if the character written on the page doesn’t already show it in bright stripes, Assange feels that its necessary to inform co-conspirator Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl) that he’s on the autism spectrum. It’s painful for all the wrong reasons. However little humanity the script affords these characters, the performance is still horrid to watch unfold.

As my friend pointed out, Benedict Cumberbatch does a great SNL impression of Julian Assange, and he really does. But don’t expect to see more than a lazy, played for laughs impression of Assange, as Benedict puts in one of the worst performances of the entire year. His dopey take on Assange is a far cry from a definitive look at a complex character (even if it does wind up being the only one). This is a man you never once feel sympathy for. He’s strange, jealous, and abusive to all those around him. The icing on the cake comes in a completely unnecessary scene in which he dances by himself in a strobe-lit club like a lanky gibbon jumped up on Adderall. Both Josh Singer’s script and Cumberbatch settle with saying, “Look at how weird he is!”

Shame on Cumberbatch for breaking the golden rule of acting. As an actor, you are not to judge your character. You seek understanding. You find what makes the audience connect to your character, not disengage from them. You’re like a lawyer preparing a case for trial. We, the audience, are the judge and the jury, not you. Otherwise, we wind up watching a paper-thin characterization, produced by someone who can’t stand the person they’re embodying. Cumberbatch’s take as Assange seeps this kind of cheap impersonation.

Like a student rushing to finish a research project, recklessly jamming every last bit of information they can on the page, hoping it will make them look more informed than they are, the choice of what to include in the film is simply dumbfounding. Important character information is blasted into the audience without context, relationships start and end hollow, and the actual accomplishments of Wikileaks become buried under a mile of silt. Instead of allowing the story beats room to breath, they fly out in our face, spring-loaded and irrelevant.

With all these scattered bits flying in from nowhere, this is filmmaking as drag-and-drop. Case and point: a romantic angle is shoehorned in. There’s no basis for it, it’s just there, because other movies do it. When the shirts pop off in the obligatory sex scene, you’ll bat your eyes, watching the congress of two stick figures with the sex appeal of listening to your parents talk dirty to each other.

Even from a technical perspective, the film is awful. The score by Carter Burwell works with the surgical precision of a sledgehammer, informing you, “This part’s exciting! This bit’s sad! Drama! Oh, it’s exciting again!” The set design is similarly off-putting as the locations these guys hang out at look inspired by the stark neon sets of Batman and Robin.

Since the 80s, filmmakers have felt that it is their duty to turn “hacking” into an exciting thing. It’s common knowledge that watching someone fire away at their keyboard doesn’t make for the best viewing experience, so they tend towards using visual metaphors to represent the pallid electrical repetition. The Fifth Estate‘s visual metaphor takes us to a giant warehouse, filled with rows upon rows of desktop computers, a metaphysical flair the producers must have thought very cool. However imaginative the sequence may have seemed at one point, the final execution is inexcusably lame, providing for some of the heartiest laughs of this straight-faced film.

With Cumberbatch and The Fifth Estates‘ once promising Oscar odds now shot to pieces, a flicker of hope remains for meat-headed political junkies, pseudo-intellectuals, and those who relish movies that are “so bad, they’re good”. Don’t get me wrong, I actually had a good time watching this, but it was all for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless, The Fifth Estate is, without a doubt, one of the worst movies of 2013.


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