Director Bill Condon has been involved in some good to excellent projects, but this is not one of them.
With well-developed lead characters, excellent performances, capable direction and mostly solid filmmaking, The Fifth Estate isn’t bad, but partially because it fails to settle on an identity, it also isn’t memorable.
I don’t know what to call The Fifth Estate. Is it a message movie? A political thriller? A docudrama? Honestly, I think it wants to be all three, but Condon and Writer Josh Singer never strike the right balance, never quite find a way to fuse these identities. Instead, the film labors along, never truly becoming anything more than a showcase for fine actors.
And the actors are excellent. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Julian Assange brilliantly, capturing the Wikileaks’ founder’s idiosyncrasies perfectly. Daniel Bruhl is every bit as good playing Daniel Berg as he is in Rush. The supporting cast is top notch, as well.
Like David Fincher of The Social Network (2010) and a slew of other directors, Condon struggles to make the idea of a bunch of people sitting at computers visually interesting. To solve this problem, Condon uses an imagined office motif, wherein Berg and Assange sit amongst never-ending cubicles as they work. Initially, the motif feels fresh and clever, but it is overused and so quickly becomes wearisome. The last time Condon shows us his metaphorical office, he tries to illustrate Berg’s final betrayal of Assange, and I lost all interest, at least for a few moments. In the end, instead of creating emotional tension, the office space prevents Bruhl and the film’s other actors from showing emotion. It is Condon’s biggest directorial misstep, and it is not an insignificant one.
Several of the side plots are awkward. First, Berg’s love interest, Anka (Alicia Verkander), is under-explored. She and Berg go from first date, to long-lasting relationship on the verge of a breakup, to getting back together, to maybe/maybe not finished again, to definitely reunited. Essentially the romance serves whatever purpose the plot and Berg’s character development demands. Anka is not an interesting character in her own right.
Similarly, the subplot featuring Laura Linney as a fictional Under Secretary in the State Department is given too little treatment. Because we see little of Linney’s character, we do not know her or care all that much about her. For a movie that intimates Assange has blood on his hands, it is an odd decision to provide so little connection to the people whom he most impacts.
For all of that, The Fifth Estate is still entertaining, at least most of time, primarily because Assange and Berg are well developed characters. We see their conviction, their passion, their certainty that they are doing right by the world. We also see Assange’s paranoia, manipulativeness and egomania, just as we see Berg’s growth from fanatical follower, to partner, to eventual opposition. These are compelling characters played by equally compelling actors.