Just as Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate was opening the Toronto International Film Festival last night, the New York Times and the Guardian were rolling out the latest revelations from Edward Snowden. The National Security Agency and its British counterpart, Government Communications Headquarters, have “circumvented or cracked much of the encryption, or digital scrambling, that guards global commerce and banking systems, protects sensitive data like trade secrets and medical records, and automatically secures the e-mails, Web searches, Internet chats and phone calls of Americans and others around the world.” The upstaging was surely unintentional, but in the race between governments and their citizens to reveal each other’s secrets, it’s pretty clear who has the upper hand.
“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,'” writes John DeFore in the Hollywood Reporter. “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.”
You won’t find many reviews that don’t draw the comparison to The Social Network. “Both films are eager to show that computing is an arena for creative genius, with much clacking on laptops like Steinway’s,” notes the Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard, who opens her review by noting how odd it was to cross the Atlantic only to find herself peering into production designer Mark Tildesley and set decorator Véronique Melery’s idea of what her office back home might look like. The Fifth Estate, after all, is based on two books, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, played in the film by Daniel Brühl, and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding, both journalists for the Guardian.
Shoard: “The plot tracks Assange from the time he recruited Domscheit-Berg, through early online celebrity, before his meeting with Guardian investigative reporter Nick Davies (David Thewlis), who, in consultation with editor Alan Rusbridger (Peter Capaldi) and deputy Ian Katz (Dan Stephens), began working with Assange towards a coordinated launch of hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables and war reports. The timeline bumps a bit, but still pushes forward confidently, with our hacker heroes forever arriving in a new city, before some fresh turn of events requires them to slam shut their laptops and rush off again.”
“Handily, though, it has a real ace to play when Assange himself pulls focus,” writes the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey. “Benedict Cumberbatch is inspiredly cast, serving up a technically ingenious performance which may be his juiciest ever.”
“It would be natural to think that Cumberbatch was working at a disadvantage, considering all the exposure the real Assange has had in the media, and the widespread familiarity of his rather chilly, white-maned persona, but the opposite is true,” argues John Anderson at Thompson on Hollywood. “Cumberbatch adopts the Wikileaks founder’s Australian cadences, and even a few of the mannerisms, but the more impressive trick is how he imbues Assange—someone we think we know—with warmth, zeal and modesty, in a character whose reflex is to conceal those very qualities from those around him.”
Still, for Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn, The Fifth Estate remains “an uneven, intermittently thoughtful but largely preachy overview of WikiLeaks’ rising influence that has less of an issue determining Assange’s character than it does with telling a compelling story.”
Michael Cieply profiles Brühl for the New York Times.
Updates, 9/7: “Jazzed up with woeful attempts to make chatrooms ‘cinematic,’ The Fifth Estate deals with Assange in broad terms, skirting some of the color in this account by Bill Keller and essentially relegating his Swedish legal troubles to a footnote,” writes Ben Kenigsberg at the AV Club. “The film presents arguments both pro and con: Laura Linney is on hand as a State Department official charged with rescuing an outed source from Libya, while David Thewlis delivers a cringingly on-the-nose monologue about the importance of radical thinking in journalism. For a film ostensibly advocating openness and access, The Fifth Estate doesn’t have much faith in its audience.”
NPR’s Linda Holmes argues that “the film’s determination to have no point of view about Assange or his work will infuriate both people who admire him and people who despise him, meaning it’s a film about a polarizing figure that can satisfy only people with no strong opinions.”
“For a film that’s about one of the most dramatic and politically loaded events of the past decade, it feels remarkably hollow,” adds Kiva Reardon at the Loop.
But for Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman, this “is one of the only movies I’ve seen that really gets, in the rollicking density of its storytelling DNA, how the Internet has changed everything.”
For Vanity Fair, Julie Miller reports on the email exchanges between Cumberbatch and Assange and the meetings between Daniels Domscheit-Berg and Brühl. And at Indiewire, Bryce J. Renninger lists “the 5 Most Stark Places Where The Fifth Estate Blurs the Facts about Wikileaks.”
Update, 9/11: “I’m usually apprehensive about the Aaron Sorkin touch,” writes Wesley Morris at Grantland. “His gloss turns greasy quick. But in The Fifth Estate you crave the wit and structure he brought to the mystery over who founded Facebook. As good as Cumberbatch is (by the last 20 minutes he’s very good), the movie wants to do and say so much about the freedom of the press and the future of the media that it needs a more outsize Assange than Cumberbatch is willing to play.”
Update, 9/14: “The Fifth Estate is an entertaining film, with cultural context that will be more valuable with each passing year,” writes Noel Murray at the Dissolve, “but at heart it’s a hokey newspaper drama, which Condon frames as a brooding, nail-biting cautionary tale. The subject is serious, but The Fifth Estate didn’t need to be—at least not to such a degree.”
Update, 10/13: As you may have heard, the Guardian has posted Assange‘s letter to Cumberbatch, asking the actor not to portray him. And, as Nigel M. Smith reports at Indiewire, in a recent reddit chat, a fan noted that Assange “even goes so far as to call you a ‘hired gun’ for distorting the truth (or at least what he views as his truth). Did this affect the way you portrayed him or even make you second guess your role at all in this film?” Cumberbatch: “Yes, of course it did.” And yes, of course there’s more.
“It is a measure of our times, and perhaps Mr. Assange’s appetite for renown, that a technology designed to enable anonymity for whistle-blowers became an engine of celebrity,” writes David Carr in the NYT.
The Fifth Estate‘s “ambivalence” toward Assange “sometimes looks like complexity,” writes the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw, “but also an odd sort of fence-sitting.” 3 out of 5 stars. More from Dave Calhoun (Time Out London, 3/5), Mark Kermode (Observer, 3/5), and Jasper Rees (Arts Desk).
Updates, 10/16: “In a rather unsubtle way, The Fifth Estate is guilty of some of the same quick judgment it clearly doesn’t endorse, following in the footsteps of right-wingers and, ultimately, the U.S. government, by exploiting Assange’s unmistakable appearance to help give itself a boogeyman,” writes R. Kurt Osenlund in Slant.
Benjamin Mercer at the L: “The white-haired Australian, here depicted as increasingly megalomaniacal, refuses to redact from classified documents the names of people who might be put in harm’s way by their publication (because editing reflects bias!), despite the pleas of his new traditional-media partners at the Guardian (David Thewlis among them) and just about everyone else affiliated with the WikiLeaks organization. But even as this central feud emerges, there remains too much going on: a perfunctory subplot also gives us the viewpoint of two State Department careerists (Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney), overwhelmed by—but eventually philosophical about—the release of the classified Afghan war logs and diplomatic cables. It’s no surprise that a commercial feature about this subject might take pains to appear evenhanded, but it’s disappointing that in the process it should also be so dramatically uneven.”
Updates, 10/18: “The Fifth Estate abounds with splashy visual metaphors as it madly surfs from Berlin rave to Cairo casbah,” writes J. Hoberman at Artinfo. “There’s an interpolated high speed getaway in which a valued US asset escapes Libya for Egypt, a subplot that also enables old pros Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney, playing a pair of veteran US government operatives, to get some screen time. But there’s scant perspective or analysis, unless it’s the sage remark regarding Assange that ‘only someone so obsessed with his own secrets could have found a way to expose everyone else.'”
The NYT‘s A.O. Scott notes that Assange has called The Fifth Estate “a reactionary snoozefest that only the U.S. government could love.” Scott, though, finds it to be merely “a moderate snoozefest, undone by its timid, muddled efforts at fair-mindedness.”
“While The Fifth Estate gets a lot of details right, it misses the big picture—politically and psychologically.” David Auerbach for Slate: “While the film gets down the look and feel of hacker gatherings, there’s little attention paid to the mores and rituals of that subculture, nor much hint given that Assange comes out of a durable tradition of phone phreaks and hackers that now goes back over 50 years.”
More from Sam Adams (Philadelphia City Paper, B-), Paul Constant (Stranger), Richard Corliss (Time), Mark Jenkins (NPR), Ben Kenigsberg (AV Club, C+), Christy Lemire (RogerEbert.com, 2/4), and Keith Phipps (Dissolve, 2/5). And Drew Taylor interviews Condon for the Playlist.
Update, 10/19: Here in Keyframe, David Ehrenstein writes that “over and above individual roles, Benedict Cumberbatch boasts a stamina every bit as impressive as his acting ability. He seems to be everywhere. And everywhere he appears he’s a welcome sight.”