Silver Screen: The Fifth Estate 1/2*
The next candidate up on the slab is a far more gruesome, pathetic creature. The Fifth Estate is without a doubt one of the worst movies of the year, the decade, and perhaps the new millennium.
The Fifth Estate, a.k.a. The Wikileaks Movie, is based on a book by early Wikileaks volunteer Daniel Domscheit-Berg, but it’s not really about Berg, primary subject Julian Assange, or Wikileaks. This restless, hyper-edited, pompous, insufferable bit of dreck isn’t about anything except conveying its own inflated sense of importance, and it doesn’t even successfully manage that immodest bit of cinematic onanism.
Nominally, The Fifth Estate is about the emergence of Wikileaks and how founder Julian Assange changed the nature of information flow in the modern era. In reality, it’s about nothing more than rushing through five years of media reports and interspersing them with faux-witticisms and fumbling attempts at heady philosophizing. The result is like watching MSNBC on fast forward while the biggest douchebag at your liberal-arts school smokes clove cigarettes and makes snide remarks.
Daniel Brühl, so good as Niki Lauda in last month’s Rush, stars as protagonist Berg, who joins forces with the spectral Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) early in the existence of the anonymous outlet for whistleblowers. When Berg first volunteers his services to Wikileaks, he realizes neither the significant scope of the website’s impact nor the diminutive size of the actual organization. Berg is presented as the grounding force for the ambitious but reckless Assange, whose briefly mentioned but totally unexplored personal demons drive him to increasing extremes that the movie presents as a hyperkinetic highlight reel of news stories: big-bank fraud, drone-strike videos, Bradley Manning, et cetera.
If it sounds like it follows the basic template of The Social Network, that’s because it’s the poor, anemic cousin of that fine film in every single way. Cumberbatch’s Assange is a haughty knockoff of Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg; between lightning strikes of genius, represented by moments of furious typing, he barfs up dumb little quips intended to showcase his sharp but double-edged intelligence. Berg is presented as Assange’s Eduardo Saverin, the enamored follower who collaborates with the thorny genius before their partnership melts down when the lackey questions the leader’s judgment and both sides feel betrayed. That’s not to say The Social Network is the gospel truth while The Fifth Estate is just the choir’s gossip, but The Fifth Estate so blatantly apes Social Network, and does such a poor job of it, that it seems all but impossible it could contain much truth.
What is the truth about Assange, who has publicly condemned the movie as trashy fiction? It’s impossible to say based on anything within the film itself, which moves so speedily through a barrage of disconnected scenes that viewers never have a moment to connect to any of the events, much less make sense of their greater relevance. I can honestly say that everything I learned about Wikileaks and Assange from this movie can be summed up in ten words: “He was raised in a cult and dyes his hair.”
It’s no fault of Cumberbatch’s; he’s a fine actor whose performance is so chopped up and scattered that it’s impossible to tell exactly what he was going for. Similarly, talented performers Peter Capaldi, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Dan Stevens, and David Thewlis all have microscopic parts as characters who are never established beyond their job titles. It’s an absolute waste of talent, time, and money that’s all the more insulting as the god-awful screenplay by Luke Harding and Josh Singer keeps explicitly reminding viewers how terribly important it is.
The Social Network succeeded at making dramatic hay out of a bunch of computer nerds obsessively pecking away at their desktops. Director Bill Condon tries to do the same here with embarrassingly literal results. In one scene, Berg and Assange sit across from one another with their laptops and have an online chat, which is then relayed inexplicably both as voiceover by the two silent men and as literal text that is projected in a glowing stock-ticker screen across their chests. In another recurring visual metaphor, the internet itself is symbolized by a vast beach lined with infinite rows of cubicles. It’s an even dumber characterization than the late Sen. Ted Stevens description of the internet as “a series of tubes.”
The Fifth Estate’s stillborn death is no mystery. Turns out people have very little interest in seeing an ineptly fictionalized version of a ubiquitous news story they’re already tired of hearing about in the first place.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.