Okay, so let’s be entirely fair: portraying text on computer screens in a compelling way is really hard. Like, really, really hard. And so, there’s a part of me that wants to give credit to The Fifth Estate’s first half hour for trying, because it bends over backwards to visually justify it’s constant hacking scenes: text in a 3D cyberspace, heavy voiceover, text crossing the frame as a character walks, text appearing in walls of green animated characters across the screen. But most of this text is so crowded or fast or bouncy that it’s impossible to read. In fact, it’s one of the very clumsiest aspects of the movie, even if there’s a sense of an honest effort on the part of director Bill Condon towards visual flourish.
Take away that sense of honesty, and you have the rest of The Fifth Estate, a shapeless parade of political biopic pastiche. It covers (in fits and starts) the formative years of Wikileaks and the turbulent relationship between its figurehead and founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and its once-spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl). It has painfully clear aspirations to be a serious statement about our information age, and also to be The Social Network (TMT Review). That film isn’t just the most obvious antecedent because of the shadow it casts over all contemporary techno-dramas, but also because of the shared central character dynamic, wherein an antisocial, fiercely principled computer genius recruits a dark, charismatic right hand, and the former’s huge ego and refusal to meet his friend halfway leads to their mutual betrayal.
But it’s not until around the 90-minute mark that the characters describe that as their relationship — before then, it’s simply a push and pull between obsession and compromise, in which the meaning and severity of any given spat between Assange and Domscheit-Berg is cloudy at best. These spats occur during a number of episodes in the earlier history covered in The Fifth Estate, like Kenyan corruption, 9/11 documents, and the unprecedented release of 251,287 U.S. diplomatic cables. I must emphatically clarify that I do not mean to imply that its structure is episodic, because that carries an assumption that these episodes have distinct beginnings and endings, when Josh Singer’s screenplay lurches from one event to another without any sequential logic save chronology. For most of the film, there is no imminent threat, or even a sense of what or who we’re supposed to care about.
Instead, every 10 minutes or so, the movie spins its current vignette into an exchange of dialogue that lays out, in stupidly simple terms, the themes and dilemmas underlying them, and then leaves them in the dust as it moves on to more “how it happened” porn, in which the dialogue is filled with reminders of its unearned self-importance. Assange has many of the worst of these lines: “Tomorrow the whole world will know. We’re gonna nail those bastards,” or, “How does it feel to make history instead of reading it?” His most self-conscious aphorism might be when he solemnly names the notorious “Collateral Murder” video, and the characters silently register that this is going to be the most important video title of all time, ever. Worst of all is a subplot following mid-level diplomats Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney) and James Boswell (Stanley Tucci). They are the most lazy-ass Greek chorus ever, failing to connect to the main plot in any way except to complain about how much of a diplomatic nightmare this all is, how bad this makes them look, and “Does he have an agenda?” “Truth, justice, and the American way?” and blah blah blah they’re not interesting.
The Fifth Estate’s formal elements seem vaguely aware of the story’s incoherence, and have aimed to compensate by imbuing every moment with as much overbearing gravity as possible, especially through the film’s music. Carter Burwell, whose musical collaborations with Condon have never been too fruitful, delivers what may well be his worst film score, one with a total poverty of nuance or intelligence. It plays every emotional beat with such clichéd insistence that it would make Mickey Mouse’s orchestra blush. The score and intermittent montage-pop music are frenetically edited (as is the picture). Condon’s “direction,” meanwhile,is not, adopting no clear visual ideas or guiding principles. Shots seem to have been decided with total disregard for their context.
The whole thing has an air of desperation about it, and when the last two scenes arrive, they send the movie’s prolonged spin out crashing into the ditch. First, Domscheit-Berg and Guardian journalist Nick Davies (David Thewlis) have a conversation about how earth-shatteringly important this has all been. Then, Assange delivers a smugly meta concluding speech with the platitudinous air of a high school valedictorian. Imagine if The Social Network ended with Zuckerberg turning to the camera and musing, “How ironic that I, the inventor of the most extensive platform for socializing in history, am myself a pariah. We all have a responsibility to see the line between mechanized, conceptual social contact and those who we really know and touch.”
Thankfully, not all movies purporting to intelligent discourse are so condescending to their audience. The Fifth Estate isn’t The Social Network. It’s just trying so hard to be.