The Fifth Estate reviews

Mister Tee
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Re: The Fifth Estate reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Thu Sep 05, 2013 11:57 pm

And, Variety.

Dennis Harvey

Ripped from headlines that still feel wet (even if its subjects might feel that phrasing gives print media too much credit), “The Fifth Estate” dramatizes the fast, controversial rise of anonymous-whistleblower website WikiLeaks and its figurehead, Julian Assange. Aiming to provide the kind of speculative personality portrait behind another sweeping digital-age change in communication that touches nearly everyone, a la “The Social Network,” helmer Bill Condon and scenarist Josh Singer’s film must also stuff in a heavy load of global events, all in a hyperkinetic style aping today’s speed of information dispersal. Results can’t help but stimulate, but they’re also cluttered and overly frenetic, resulting in a narrative less informative, cogent and even emotionally engaging than Alex Gibney’s recent docu “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.” Initial interest should be high, though likely mixed critical and word of mouth response may dampen B.O. staying power.

After an opening credits montage that rockets through the history of news media, from hand-lettered scrolls to the Internet, the pic leaps into the peak October 2010 moment of WikiLeaks’ fame and notoriety, when, in tandem with the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel, Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) began releasing an enormous store of leaked classified U.S. government documents. The resulting fracas outshone even prior firestorms incurred by WikiLeaks’ exposure of the American military’s massacre of unarmed civilians and journalists in Afghanistan; ruling corruption in Kenya and elsewhere; Swiss bank Julius Baer providing a massive tax dodge for wealthy clients around the world; and ugly truths behind Iceland’s economic collapse. In the fallout, as postscripts note, Assange remains in hiding (at Ecuador’s London embassy) while various angry governments call for his extradition.

The remainder of the film tracks back to 2007, when he first makes contact with German technology activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruehl), whom he trusts enough to make a close collaborator — rare for a man whose paranoias are reinforced not only by the dangerous intel he helps make public, but by a traumatic Ozzie upbringing within the New Age cult known as the Family (glimpsed in brief flashbacks).

Daniel is an enthusiastic acolyte, so much so that the 24/7 devotion Julian demands soon exasperates Daniel’s girlfriend (Alicia Vikander in a standard thankless role). The mysterious, seemingly large Wiki organization Assange frequently alludes to turns out to be nothing but “a website, a couple email addresses, and you,” he eventually admits, though others climb on board — notably Daniel’s master-hacker friend Marcus (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Icelandic agitator Birgitta Jonsdottir (Carice van Houten).

But even as WikiLeaks appears to be winning the information war in forcing transparency from governments and corporations, pushing them toward greater ethical accountability, Assange show signs of megalomania, instability and questionable judgment. Returning to the screenplay’s start point, his troops rebel when Assange balks at redacting any top-secret American communiques, even the parts that might put innocent lives at lethal risk in global hot spots around the globe.

Any five minutes of foregrounded human interest or backgrounded news material here could easily float a feature on its own. Both the kindest and most damning thing you can say about “The Fifth Estate” is that it primarily hobbles itself by trying to cram in more context-needy material than any single drama should have to bear.

You can feel the strain on “The West Wing” writer Singer, penning his first bigscreen effort, as practically every line has to sum up a philosophy, situation or dilemma. Likewise, Condon, usually a director of admirable cogency and restraint, lays on a battery of audiovisual tactics (onscreen text, graphics, split screen, vertical wipes, etc.), largely set to techno tracks or Carter Burwell’s equally pounding score. Tobias Schliesser’s camera often jitters as if on its 10th espresso, while Virginia Katz’s editing seldom pauses for breath. There’s conceptual logic behind these decisions, but they are as frequently off-putting as they are thematically apt.

No wonder the two perhaps most memorable scenes are among the very few that slow enough to allow nuance: an uncomfortable visit to Daniel’s parents’ home, when Julian openly disdains them as bourgeois intellectuals; and a let’s-just get-drunk moment between Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as State Dept. honchos whose careers won’t likely survive the latest Wiki leaks.

An array of fine British, European and Middle Eastern actors fill other supporting roles, making the most of fleeting opportunities. But for all its flexibility in imagining what might make its real-life characters tick, “The Fifth Estate” conveys less sense of personal insight into its two main figures than “We Steal Secrets” did (and Gibney didn’t even have direct access to Assange). German star Bruehl (also co-headlining another big English-language Toronto title, “Rush”) is stuck playing Domscheit-Berg — who wrote one of the two tomes the script draws on — as a single-note nice guy, the standard audience-alter-ego witness to events that spiral out of control. Hardworking Cumberbatch captures Assange’s slightly otherworldly air, as well as numerous creepier qualities. (The real-life man may be a hero to many, but few claim he’s a nice guy.) Still, it too feels like a somewhat one-dimensional turn, hemmed in by an overall sensibility that just can’t stop to probe deeper.

Shot in numerous countries, the pic has first-rate tech/design elements that are, like the project as a whole, sometimes too busy for their own good.

Mister Tee
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The Fifth Estate reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Thu Sep 05, 2013 11:53 pm

Okay, so -- not every festival movie's a smash.


Hollywood Reporter

The Fifth Estate: Toronto Review

9:04 PM PDT 9/5/2013 by John DeFore

The Bottom Line

Benedict Cumberbatch's Julian Assange is the highlight of a sometimes ordinary-feeling film.

TORONTO — Whittling the logistical sprawl and moral swamp of WikiLeaks into the story of a falling-out between two intimate partners, Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate views site founder Julian Assange largely through the eyes of Daniel Domscheit-Berg, his German spokesperson in the period leading up to the 2010 release of "The Iraq War Logs." Of necessity, the film plays less like the director's earlier ones involving real-world subjects (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters) than like The Social Network: Here again we have an internet phenomenon that has changed the world, created by a polarizing, psychologically opaque man accused of betraying those around him. The comparison isn't flattering to Estate, which, though it traffics in life and death and threats to the world's great institutions, isn't always as gripping as a film whose main drama was who would get rich over letting "friends" share party pictures. Though it will attract attention at the box office, it is unlikely to appeal broadly to moviegoers who, one suspects, have never been as worked up about WikiLeaks as journalists and governments are.

The most compelling thing here by far is the film's vision of Assange, by all accounts a man of enormous self-regard and slippery ethics. Benedict Cumberbatch has the character in hand from the start -- his way of brushing into another's space and making it his office, of not seeing others unless they're reflecting back some of the energy he emits, of elevating himself by making others' concerns sound trivial. The actor brings extra ambiguity to scenes in which Assange is ostensibly opening up to people; only once (when activist associates in Kenya are killed) do his emotions seem untainted by manipulative play-acting.

When Assange and Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) first meet at a hacker convention, the younger man is flattered to have the opportunity to spread awareness of a site he believes in. Bringing Assange to a party house in Berlin, he hopes to talk about its operations when his new friend takes things online: The two sit in a quiet corner with laptops open, typing chat messages back and forth instead of speaking.

Lines from the chat are projected across the actors' faces, the only really smirk-worthy device Condon uses in a film hoping to animate online activity. Later sequences, which use innumerable headlines receding into the distance to show how leaks propagate online, are simply uninspired and unable to capture WikiLeaks's startling impact visually.

The film does a more evocative job with the amorphous nature of the site's internal operations, visualizing all its hundreds of volunteers -- be they in Internet cafes, bedrooms or (as Berg often is) hiding in a supply closet at work -- as connected in a vast virtual office. The rows upon rows of desks may evoke a 1960s steno pool more than a 21st century workplace, but the metaphor is useful, especially in the dramatic moment when Berg learns that all the other volunteers he has worked with on the site are actually just Assange, speaking through different e-mail accounts.

Yes: Though the publisher boasted of a vast army of techies bent on spreading secrets,The Fifth Estate says that for some time Assange and Berg -- and one computer server -- were the entire team. The knowledge generates intense loyalty on Berg's part, but he's smart enough to know they need help. Using some savings, he buys a stack of servers and stashes them across Europe so they all can't be seized or shut down at once.

Berg brings others into the inner circle, leading to his first clash with his control-freak partner. Things go seriously bad later, as they negotiate with The Guardian and other old media outlets to jointly release troves of military and diplomatic documents leaked by Bradley Manning. (David Thewlis, playing veteran reporter Nick Davies, embodies the wise bridge between the sensibilities of respectable journalism and indiscriminate revelation.) Though Assange covets the boost in exposure this publication will bring, Berg is shocked to find that he doesn't intend to honor his promise to redact names and other identifying information from the highly-sensitive cables. The film intends this conflict to stir debate over the degrees of secrecy that are required in free societies, but it comes across more as a clash of personalities. The film sides with Berg, whose brand of idealism is less concerned with dramatic, attention-getting gestures than with producing a righteous result.

Showing the far other side of the coin, Estate offers some composite characters in the U.S. State Department (played by Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci) who must try to squash leaks and scramble to protect operatives about to be exposed. This side of the film feels perfunctory, and while some tension is generated by a sequence following a Libyan source trying to evade arrest, the scenes don't add much to Berg and Assange's impassioned debates over the value of secret operatives' lives versus those of the civilians killed in the wars they wage.


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