Movies: "The Fifth Estate" | Arts & Culture

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Movies: "The Fifth Estate"
Movies: "The Fifth Estate"

The trouble with this newfangled computer age is it just doesn’t make for very compelling cinema.  Hey, if you want to see a bunch of people tapping away at their keyboards, just look up from your cubicle or stop by your local library.

To be fair, “The Fifth Estate,” the dramatization of the Wikileaks publication of thousands of secret documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, tries to spice up the cyberstuff, starting with a truly clever opening montage following the evolution of media from hieroglyphics through moveable type and the telegraph, all the way to the vanishing world of print and the rise of the worldwide web.  All in a couple of minutes.


The story was adapted by Josh Singer from two books: Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s “Inside Wikileaks” and “Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy” by David Leigh and Luke Harding.  Assange has harshly condemned both book and this movie; at the film’s close, we see Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange, blasting the very movie we’ve just been watching for over two hours.


This is basically a two-character film, as we see young Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl), a German computer whiz recruited by the charismatic Julian Assange, who assures him that his investigative website has hundreds of volunteers.  In another bit of film fantasy, we see a vast office space.  But in fact, there are just the two of them and one overloaded server handling incoming leaks from all over the world.


And all over the world we travel in this movie, with a lot of handsome scenery shot in Berlin, Belgium, Iceland and Kenya.  As Wikileaks grows in importance, Assange makes more and more demands of Berg’s time, even forcing him to give up his attractive girlfriend (Sweden’s Alicia Vikander).  But when the biggest scoop of them all is leaked to them by Army Private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, the two men are sharply divided over whether or not to release thousands of top secret US documents naming scores of private sources whose lives would be in danger as a result.


The ubiquitous Mr. Cumberbatch is riveting as the imperious web guru who reveals some of his own secrets to Berg, about his horrific childhood in an Australian cult.  Bruhl is sympathetic as the Sancho Panza to Assange’s Don Quixote.  “He’s a mad prophet,” Berg’s girlfriend says to him, “but he needs a line.  You’re that line.”


Cumberbatch and Bruhl dominate the movie, but get some able assistance from supporting players, including Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as State Department muckety-mucks trying to handle the Wikileaks embarassment, the terrific Daniel Thewlis as a British reporter sympathetic to Assange, and from Moritz Bleibtreu as a Wikileaks volunteer troubled by Assange’s megalomaniacal leadership.  (There is no real mention of the sex charges that led the Wikileaks founder to seek refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, except for a camera card at the end.)


“The Fifth Estate” was directed by Bill Condon, whose earlier films include “Kinsey” and “Gods and Monsters.”  It’s rated R for adult language and situations.  


I give it a B.