Throughout Bill Condon's take on the "Wikileaks affair", I kept half expecting someone to shout at some point the equivalent of Jack Nicholson' legendary one-liner in A Few Good Men: "You can't handle the truth!" Because that's the sort of film The Fifth Estate wants to be: an important, standard-bearing drama about an important subject - in this case, the shifting ethics and forms of contemporary journalism, as seen through the rise of "citizen media" such as Julian Assange's attention-grabbing website. All fine and dandy, except it does so by trying to make that subject conform to the time-honoured tropes of the liberal thriller of 1970s Hollywood, padding its dance between idealism and pragmatism with an attempt at remaining scrupulously neutral that does it no favours.

     It's clear that, for Mr. Condon, what really matters is the push-and-pull relationship between Mr. Assange, the mysterious, dashing Australian hacker (Benedict Cumberbatch), and his foil, grounded German IT man Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl). Their tale, as they start a revolution in their own backyard, so to speak, to see it gradually spin into something bigger than themselves, is the same of any visionary inventor or modern technology start-up, with time, experience, power and fame gaining up on them and eventually conspiring to divide them. Only there's a volatile element added to the mix - the "small" matter of ethics as raised by the struggle between idealism and pragmatism. The truth is, the electricity of Messrs. Cumberbatch and Brühl's performances, the way they play the ups and downs in the relationship between Mr. Assange and Mr. Berg, would be enough to make The Fifth Estate a fascinating film, especially since the way they gradually learn more about each other ends up mirroring their own takes on what Wikileaks should be and how to run it.

     Instead, though, Mr. Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer prefer to shy away of the personal issues (somewhat understandably since both are living persons and Mr. Assange made a point of denouncing the production even before it started shooting), and prefer to frame them as one among various sub-plots. The "old media", alternately cynical about and fascinated with the "scoops" the upstart website finds; an American administration both embarrassed and worried by what Wikileaks pulls up from under the carpet; a Libyan informer whose life may have been endangered by its revelations.

     In doing so, Messrs. Condon and Singer only yield to the key question for legacy media: is looking at things from the past the best way to respond to the future? They tell the very modern tale of The Fifth Estate in a very classic framework, merely highlighting how inadequate that approach is. Even the single striking visual idea of a film that is otherwise professionally functional and anonymous - picturing Wikileaks as a never-ending, open-plan newspaper office out of All the President's Men or Billy Wilder's The Apartment - merely shows how The Fifth Estate attempts to comprehend the world in terms of a format that may no longer make sense for today's fast-moving news cycle. It doesn't make it a bad film, just an under-achieving one that doesn't entirely make justice to the story it tells.

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney
Director: Bill Condon
Screenplay: Josh Singer, from the books by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Inside Wikileaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website, and David Leigh with Luke Harding, Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy
Cinematography: Tobias Schliessler  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Carter Burwell
Designer: Mark Tildesley
Costumes: Shay Cunliffe
Editor: Virginia Katz
Producers: Steve Golin, Michael Sugar (Dreamworks Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, Anonymous Content Pictures, Afterworks and FBO in association with Participant Media)
United Kingdom/Belgium/USA/India, 2013, 128 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, November 11th 2013


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