Movie Review: The Fifth Estate

a version of this review first appeared here.

Much has been said about the movie’s mishandling of actual events, and those reviews are fascinating to be sure. Most of us, however, forgive that to one extent or another if a ‘based on true events’ biopic is remotely interesting, well shot, anything. The Fifth Estate is none of the above, but it does manage to take literalism to a whole new level, inserting dreamish sequences of a giant bank of computers, first being used by multiple Asanges, later being covered in snowing papers, last being overturned and set on fire. Because the operation went up in flames, get it? That’s what most of the film is doing, jumping up and down saying “HEY DO YOU GET IT? YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT WE’RE DOING? YOU GRASP SOME OF THE MOTIVATIONS WE’RE ASSIGNING THESE CHARACTERS? HUH HUH HUH?” Not the the motivations are particularly interesting.

What we would like to know is how Asange convinced, manipulated, and moved people, what gave him a psychological edge, how he gained his skills at evading surveillance and kept a step ahead of everyone for so long; really, anything but what we’re given. The actual content here would fill perhaps a third of a better film.

The only thing of interest in the whole film is Cumberbach’s performance, and even that only for the first 10 or so minutes. It grows old quickly, as his mannerisms and accurate affectations are never allowed to extend to interpretation. Bruhl is plenty capable, too, but though he’s allowed a token girlfriend (the better to cut off suggestion of other motivations between Berg and Asange, my dear), he isn’t allowed an actual range of emotions. Does the director think this is what ‘inscrutable’ means? Well, the director also mistakes darkness for mood and usage of teal variations for cinematography.

There’s no trust in the audience to understand, there’s no depth for the audience to mull over, and there’s no gift to the audience in picture or performance.

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