<Review by: Sailesh Ghelani>
Directed by Bill Condon. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Alicia Vikander, Carice van Houten, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis
The Fifth Estate is a muddle with metaphors that are ridiculously portrayed and a story that says absolutely nothing about an issue that shook nations.
This was the opening film at the Toronto International Film Festival 2013 (read lots more about our coverage of TIFF 2013 here). And films that open the festival have often gone on to win big at the Oscar Awards: Silver Linings Playbook and Argo being examples.
The Fifth Estate, however, was pretty much slammed after its showing at TIFF 2013 by critics so it’s a mystery as to why the good people at the Mumbai Film Festival (read about the opening of the festival here) decided to close their week-long event with this film. I mean they knew about the bad reviews. Surely they watched the film before deciding. And if these are the people who are deciding the films that get screened then you pretty much know that most of the other films weren’t that great either. Buzz was that very few of the MFF films were very good this year.
Anyway, I read the bad reviews and since The Fifth Estate was releasing in India just a day after the Mumbai Film Festival show I just watched the press show of the film. Much more comfy seats than the ones at Liberty Cinema!
Oh my god! Doesn’t anyone watch these films? The Fifth Estate is a disappointing portrayal of what was one of the biggest real-life tech stories of the century and one of the most influential tech minds in the world. Sure he’s a bit of a cook with idiosyncrasies and dyed white hair but then most geniuses have their foibles. Look at Steve Jobs. Unfortunately even his movie Jobs was a resounding failure.
These are complicated men who have lead extremely complicated and interesting lives in a short span of time so maybe it is a task to make a film on them. How do you show a guy on a laptop changing the world with secretly leaked documents being made public in a movie? Well Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate tries to do it with CGI metaphors: a scene with a room full of identical office desks and a sky for a ceiling with fluorescent lights hanging from it. Rows of empty chairs representing the non-existent ‘volunteers’ of WikiLeaks. The latter is the company founded by Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Assange found the formula for a website that would allow ‘whistle-blowers’ to leak confidential information about their company/organisation without ever being detected or identified. Without editing, WikiLeaks would publish these documents in a freedom of information spirit for the world to see. Of course the system has some flaws. and Assange is soon assisted by Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl) who admires the man and provides a balance to the temperamental and recluse ‘revolutionary’ who is actually portrayed as being self-obsessed and very rude indeed. The film is based on a book by Daniel Berg who was kicked out of WikiLeaks and ended up betraying Assange by doing a little whistle-blowing on him.
The real Julian Assange is holed up in the Ecuador Embassy in London and was never consulted on the film. So he’s badmouthed it from the start and is quite happy about the film’s poor reception. Not just because it portrays him in a bad light but because he believes it is not a true account.
Well the film is a muddled account for sure. There’s way too much happening and way too many metaphorical CGI animations to portray what is going on in the backend world of the Internet. They’ve included a bit at the end about how the American Government responds to a potentially life threatening military leak and this bit is the weakest link, almost looking like it’s been super glued on. Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci are introduced but I had no idea who they were and what role they played in the government. They’re just there for the last 30 minutes and it all looks very shoddy with nothing being explained or detailed.
The Fifth Estate is a mediocre film simply because it tries to tell so much – exactly the fault of Jobs – in so little time about such a colossal subject. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Assange well or at least he plays the character well since most of us don’t know how Assange really behaves in his personal interactions. Daniel Brühl is too uni-dimensional and boring.
Don’t waste your time with this film. It tells you a lot but none of it captures the gravity of the subject. Clumsy, poorly written, directionless and frankly horrid. How this made it to film festivals just shows you what type of people are approving the films that are screened there. Certainly not the best kind.
PS: I was informed by one of my colleagues why The Fifth Estate was screened as the closing film of the Mumbai Film Festival: it’s a Reliance Entertainment production and the festival is sponsored by Reliance.