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Movie Review: The Fifth Estate

October 18, 2013

The Fifth Estate PosterThe Fifth Estate – A Touchstone Pictures Release

Release Date: October 18th, 2013

Rated 14A for coarse language and a scene of graphic violence

Running time: 128 minutes

Bill Condon (dir.)

Josh Singer (screenplay)

Based on the books Inside WikiLeaks by Daniel Berg, and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding

Carter Burwell (music)

Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange

Daniel Brühl as Daniel Berg

Alicia Vikander as Anke Domscheit

Laura Linney as Sarah Shaw

Stanley Tucci as James Boswell

Anthony Mackie as Sam Coulson

Peter Capaldi as Alan Rusbridger

David Thewlis as Nick Davies

Moritz Bleibtreu as Marcus

Carice van Houten as Birgitta Jónsdóttir

The Fifth Estate

©Touchstone Pictures.  All Rights Reserved.

Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl) in The Fifth Estate.

Our reviews below:


The Fifth Estate Review By John C.

**1/2 (out of 4)

The repercussions of WikiLeaks are still unfolding, but The Fifth Estate aims to capture this zeitgeist by dramatizing main events in the legacy of the website, which have made headlines over the past several years.  Although a bit overhyped as the opener for TIFF last month, this is a fairly entertaining take on recent history that doesn’t offer many new insights, but is carried by a pair of solid performances that are the main reason to see the film.

When Australian activist Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) launched WikiLeaks in 2006, the idea behind the website was to give whistleblowers a secure platform to upload unedited files, exposing the secrets of a Swiss bank and the corrupt Kenyan government.  With the help of his assistant Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl), the website gained supporters and successfully brought private information to the public attention, courting scrutiny from Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney) and James Boswell (Stanley Tucci) at the American State Department.  But the morals of both men behind WikiLeaks were put to the test when they teamed up with major news organizations for their biggest leak of information yet.

Parts of The Fifth Estate do feel more like an overview of the story that quickly glides through certain events and this approach alleviates some of the tension, but the film builds up towards a fairly satisfying payoff.  Benedict Cumberbatch delivers an excellent portrayal of how we imagine Julian Assange might be in real life, right down to the small character traits and rigidity to being right that make him “dangle on the autistic spectrum.”  Daniel Brühl also does strong work in the equally important supporting role, and these performances really are the main reason why the film is worth a look.  Bill Condon directs with a sense of style that might help the story reach a wider audience, but is also sometimes exaggerated, like oddly distracting scenes at an imagined office with sand on the floor and rows of desks.

Having already denounced the film with an ironically appropriate online leak of the script and an open letter to Benedict Cumberbatch, the public disapproval of Julian Assange has actually helped drum up publicity for the release.  Despite this negative press from the main subject, The Fifth Estate is a pretty good movie that provides an often entertaining look at important events in recent history, and the lingering questions that they helped bring to the forefront.  But the strong performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl really are the main reason to see the film.


The Fifth Estate Review by Erin V.

*** (out of 4)

Based on two books, one of which was written by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, The Fifth Estate tells the story of WikiLeaks, and how it became a superpower of information in an increasingly internet-run world.

The film follows Daniel Berg’s (Daniel Brühl) time working with Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), from when he was first hired on, to when he left the site.  For those with a very basic understanding of WikiLeaks, this is a fine introduction, but overall it doesn’t cover much new ground.

While it feels a little long at over 2 hours, The Fifth Estate is worth watching for the two lead performances. Although both are very good, it ends up being the lesser known Brühl who stands out. When he and Cumberbatch are on screen, their delivery of the lines and interactions hold your attention.  On the flip side of things, where the actual artistry of the filmmaking is concerned, I will admit that I found some of the artistic choices in how to portray the inner workings of the computer site (as this giant office complex with multiples of Assange and Berg) to be a bit odd if in a mildly interesting way.  These scenes reminded me of a student short film style – which admittedly is not what you expect from a big screen studio film and sort of takes the viewer out of the story.  The opening sequence of the film showing information sharing through the ages was well done though and I liked that choice.

This film has explicitly not been approved by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and he has even written an open letter to this fact.  In my opinion though, the film is nothing really that we didn’t already know and isn’t going to really change people’s opinions, especially those that are pre-founded.  The directly pre-credits scene where Cumberbatch as Assange is addressing the camera and talking about a film being made seems to echo Assange’s actual letter to him, which I found intriguing.

Overall, The Fifth Estate is an alright film that boasts very strong performances, but will lose nothing on DVD.


The Fifth Estate Review by Nicole

*** (out of 4)

The Fifth Estate tells the true story of the two men who started WikiLeaks, the investigative website that spills the world’s dirtiest secrets.  The movie is interesting in that it is from the point of view of assistant Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl), as opposed to WikiLeaks inventor Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Julian Assange feels that WikiLeaks, his website that allows for anonymous reporting of human rights abuses that had been kept under wraps, will revolutionize both journalism and the world.  Assange visits a geek convention, inviting fellow nerd Daniel Berg to help on his project.  Berg is a friendly guy, who enjoys helping out the human rights project.  But Assange’s traumatic past has left him paranoid, and he runs WikiLeaks as a one man project under hundreds of fake aliases.

Assange’s paranoia, and his stubborn refusal to listen to anyone else’s suggestions or opinions, gets in the way of both WikiLeaks and Berg’s dating and personal life.  Both Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl play their characters with incredible emotional depth.  Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Assange as a broken man who blocks people out in fear of getting hurt.  He seems uncaring on the surface, but truly feels he is standing up for those who can’t speak for themselves, a quality that does suggest latent empathy.

His stubborn refusal to listen to others may be, as he puts it, a mildly autistic trait.  Although it should be emphasized that many people who are autistic are capable of listening to others, are capable of empathy and can learn to work with other people.  As Temple Grandin puts it, people who are autistic can learn manners, since civility is something no one should go without.

Daniel Brühl plays Berg as someone who believes in Assange’s causes, and is trying his best to help him get over his stuck ideas so that he can truly run WikiLeaks as a community project.  One of Berg’s hopes is that Assange will get over his paranoid fear of volunteers, though he refuses to listen.  However, despite Assange’s often difficult demeanour, WikiLeaks is a lifesaving and revolutionary website that has raised awareness of human rights violations, and will help put an end to oppressive regimes worldwide.

The world needs more people with the courage and determination of Daniel Berg and Julian Assange, who will use the internet to create a truly humane and democratic world.


The Fifth Estate Review by Maureen

**1/2 (out of 4)

Most people have at least some knowledge of the facts surrounding Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks scandal.  Director Bill Condon’s movie, The Fifth Estate gives an account of the story based on a book written by Assange’s former business partner, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl).  While the facts surrounding the various news leaks are accurate, this is very much a one sided portrait of Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

The Fifth Estate is an actor’s movie.  Benedict Cumberbatch is fascinating to watch as the incredibly complex and probably on the autism spectrum Julian Assange.  His performance is balanced nicely by Daniel Brühl’s excellent portrayal of the more levelheaded Daniel Berg.  The interactions between the men are interesting to see.  Initially, the two seem to have the same goal – freedom of information.  However, it’s Assange’s apparent drive to allow information to flow no matter what the cost to others, that leads to the split between him and Berg.

The scene I found to be the most interesting is the epilogue at the end when Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange speaks directly to the camera, stating how the film is not a fair depiction of the facts.  The words are essentially a script of the email letter that real life Assange sent to Cumberbatch, asking him not to participate in the film.  For a movie that is about revealing truths no matter what the cost, this seems like a fitting way to end things.

While The Fifth Estate won’t give viewers deeper insight into the whole WikiLeaks situation, it does offer an interesting character study and very strong performances from the two leads.


The Fifth Estate Review by Tony

*** (out of 4)

The Fifth Estate follows the career of Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the Australian born hacktivist founder of Wikileaks, based in part on a book by German investigative journalist Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl), who worked closely with him for several years. Since the traditional press is sometimes called the fourth estate, the title Fifth Estate refers to the alternative crowd sourced online media for which Wikileaks provides a platform that through an cleverly encrypted system of distributed servers would guarantee anonymity to any contributor. A number of explosive revelations have resulted, notably thousands of communications involving American military and foreign policy. Much of the material, redacted to protect the identities of sources, was published simultaneously by the Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel.

Directed by Bill Condon, The Fifth Estate plays like a thriller, with an appropriate largely electronic score from Carter Burwell. However, despite a nice opening montage of modes of communication from stone tablets to the present, an ambitious production ranging over numerous locations, and an epilogue with Cumberbatch as Assange disclaiming the film, the story is a bit hard to follow at times, with a couple of fantasy sequences that didn’t quite work for me. The large supporting cast includes Alicia Vikander as Berg’s girlfriend, David Thewlis as their Guardian contact, and Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as sanguine American government officials, but the film is worth seeing mainly for the performances of Cumberbatch and Brühl.


Consensus: Although The Fifth Estate sometimes feels like a stylized overview of the dense WikiLeaks story, the strong performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl are the main reason to see director Bill Condon’s film.  **3/4 (Out of 4)

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