While internet-based stories are fascinating to read about, adapting them to the film medium is an entirely different matter. The Social Network succeeded in doing this by focusing the Facebook story on the relationship between its creators. In contrast, Bill Condon’s, The Fifth Estate, struggles under its own execution and the weight of the real-life story.
The Fifth Estate concerns the birth of WikiLeaks and the friendship between activist Julian Assange played by Benedict Cumberbatch and journalist, Daniel Domscheit-Berg played by Daniel Bruhl.
After an impressive montage showing the history of communication, the film opens in 2010 with WikiLeaks being embroiled in major controversy regarding U.S intelligence and military files.
Flashing back to 2007, Assange and Domscheit-Berg meet and become friends over their shared interest of the Internet. Upon creating WikiLeaks, they are successful in exposing bankers’ illicit activities and leaking politicians’ private files.
Daniel becomes worried about Assange’s determination to protect sources’ identities, as well as sacrificing certain people for the sake of the truth. His personal and professional life begins to suffer and leads him to question whether their actions are just.
Cumberbatch delivers a gripping performance as Assange and stands out as one of the film’s few highlights.
Unlike the majority of today’s actors, he is not a typical leading man but instead has gained acclaim for playing intelligent characters in Sherlock or menacing types in Star Trek Into Darkness.
By donning a white wig, Cumberbatch is able to play Assange as an articulate, yet odd man who elicits sympathy and skepticism. He manages an Australian accent without coming off as over the top. There are hints that he may have had a difficult childhood upbringing in a cult, but the film never explores this any further.
As the friend turned adversary, Bruhl’s character, Domscheit-Berg provides a solid turn as the film’s voice of reason. Initially an ally of Assange, his life falls apart as he spends more time working for WikiLeaks.
He has a good-natured demeanor while struggling with his conscience. Heated confrontations between him and Cumberbatch are among the film’s highlights.
Condon’s direction of the film is firmly rooted in the breakup of two friends. Although this theme loses focus when trying to cover the scope of WikiLeaks’ exploits.
In several scenes, the characters are typing words in chat rooms, while the dialogue is spoken onscreen in voice-over. This is an attempt to keep the film from being solely about people on computers, but results in a feeling of redundancy. Furthermore, the story and subject matter bear similarities to The Social Network, which stayed focused on the human element.
With regard to accuracy, the film’s depiction of events is subject to scrutiny. Assange denounced the production when he describes the film as being a fictional story based on questionable sources – one of which being Domscheit-Berg’s memoir.
The scenes of Assange’s alleged childhood troubles do not appear to have a solid basis of fact. In addition, his current predicament of holding up an embassy and facing sexual allegations are only given a brief mention.
Despite these factors, it is actually the lack of finality or closure that hurts the story the most.
Apart from a few strong performances, The Fifth Estate is fairly straightforward in trying to tell a story but struggles in its execution.