The Fifth Estate

00:00 October 25, 2013
By: Fritz Esker
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[Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios/Motion Pictures]

** 1/2 out of ****

The Social Network garnered critical acclaim and Academy Award nominations by telling the Facebook's origin story. Now, director Bill Condon (Chicago) goes for the awards glory tackling the beginnings of Wikileaks in The Fifth Estate.

Daniel Bruhl (Rush) plays Daniel Berg, a computer nerd who falls under the spell of Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch). When introduced in the film, Assange is already a man on a mission to bring total transparency to the public. He believes everyone should have access to the information that governments, banks, and other powerful institutions keep secret. So, he creates Wikileaks as a way for whistleblowers to report abuses of power anonymously.

While Wikileaks accomplishes some good, more complex questions arise in the form of how much information is too much. Sometimes, governments and corporations keep secrets to cover up their own wrongdoing, but in other cases, secrets protect the lives of informers, undercover agents, and others. Bruhl's character, as well as the media partners Wikileaks eventually works with, believes some information should be redacted to protect lives, but Assange believes any editorial decision indicates bias and all people should have access to every scrap of information available.

The movie is at its most interesting when tackling these ethical dilemmas and addressing the fact that most newspapers can't afford real investigative journalism anymore. However, the movie, like many computer-oriented films before it, struggles to make people sitting at computer screens cinematic.

But the biggest flaw is viewers never really get to know Assange as anything other than a zealot in the cause of information transparency. The Social Network really gave you a sense of what made Mark Zuckerberg (or at least the film's interpretation of him) tick. But since Assange is depicted through the eyes of others, he comes off as mostly one dimensional. His final choices and alienation of his closest ally don't have any emotional weight because viewers don't really know him. A dreadful final scene has Bruhl and David Thewlis (as a journalist with The Guardian) discussing Assange and spelling out what his life means as if they were studio commentators dissecting a Saints game after it ended.

That said, The Fifth Estate moves along at a good clip and it poses interesting questions about the new frontier of the information age. It may fall short of its aspirations, but it at least tries to make the audience think.

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