MRR Review: "The Fifth Estate"

Photo Credit: Touchstone Pictures

Movie Review: "The Fifth Estate"

Rating: R (Language, some violence)

Length: 128 min

Release Date: Oct. 18, 2013

Directed By: Bill Condon

Genre: Biography, Drama


"The Fifth Estate" is a 2013 film that chronicles the controversial life of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks is a site that changed the course of the free press and the flow of public information by posting classified documents and other raw forms of data directly to the Internet for the public to see and judge. Assange and his colleague, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, founded the website to serve as a watchdog in the international community of power players. With almost no budget or staff, the two computer geniuses managed to create a fully functional website that would allow anonymous sources from all over the world to release whatever information they felt the public had a right to know.

As with all revolutionary endeavors, WikiLeaks was plagued with controversy, drama, and danger. "The Fifth Estate" is named for the fact that the press has always been known as the fourth estate, so the world of citizen journalism has created a fifth. With bloggers around the world challenging the motives and legitimacy of major news sources by posting their own content on the web, a whole new world of media has opened up. "The Fifth Estate" delves into the nature of access in journalism, exposing the ways in which the mainstream media outlets curry favor with politicians and heads of major companies, couching negative facts in exchange for future interviews. Although the film is a drama, not a documentary, "The Fifth Estate" does a remarkable job of shedding light on the state of current media affairs.

Benedict Cumberbatch, best known for his role as the titular character in "Sherlock," stars in "The Fifth Estate" as the platinum-haired Julian Assange. Cumberbatch is known for his theatrical flair and ability to take on dramatic roles with both gravitas and believability, and he does not disappoint in this latest role. Cumberbatch delivers his lines with the same icy charisma of the figure he portrays, creating a believable and vibrant portrait of the man who shaped the current face of citizen journalism and political discourse around the world. The actor plays Assange in a realistic way, highlighting his successes and strengths while acknowledging his character flaws. Daniel Brühl plays WikiLeaks co-founder Daniel Domscheit-Berg with equal conviction. Although Daniel's character lacks Assange's cold elegance and imposing demeanor, he more than makes up for it with nerdy charm and his own brand of charisma. The tension between the two men is palpable throughout the film, as the stakes of an amateur venture get raised to the level of international treason.

Hard news is a dangerous game as Assange and Domscheit-Berg soon find out. While they are initially hailed as heroes, thanks to their platform's successes in uncovering international fraud and banking corruption, things take a darker turn when a whistle-blower uses WikiLeaks to expose corruption on a much larger scale. The duo post one of the biggest intelligence leaks in the history of the American Government, outlining controversial events surrounding the war in Iraq and intelligence practices. Assange takes matters into his own hands and makes a decision that may end not only his friendship with Daniel but also his career as a journalist and free press mogul.

Although "The Fifth Estate" lacks an arsenal of special effects and action sequences, it is every bit as much of an international spy thriller as the Bond franchise. Assange is not the traditional action hero, and his character is portrayed as both deeply sincere and deeply flawed, giving the film added depth. While the director acknowledges that other documentaries have done justice to the chronology and facts of the events surrounding the WikiLeaks controversy, his film delves much deeper into the broader implications of the controversy than anyone has so far. Cumberbatch does a remarkable job of portraying Assange, managing to get across just the right balance of drama and conviction in his character. The film is suspenseful and tense but equally informative throughout. For anyone who understands the basic facts of the WikiLeaks controversy but wants to put the events into a broader picture, "The Fifth Estate" is an absolute must-see film.

It is rare for a film based on true events to have the same artistic flair of a film based purely in fantasy without sacrificing its factualness, but "The Fifth Estate" manages to strike the perfect balance between both worlds. The film is educational and eye-opening as well as entertaining, calling upon themes and plot elements reminiscent of "V for Vendetta." Through it all, the film manages to avoid political entanglements while shining a light on the nature of the political system itself. Whether you follow current events closely or are simply looking for a dramatic thriller, "The Fifth Estate" will not disappoint.

Rating: 3 out of 5