Movie review

Wiki weak: 'The Fifth Estate' is a victim of style over substance | 2 stars

Updated: 2013-10-20T04:39:46Z

By JON NICCUM

Special to The Star

The website WikiLeaks protects the identity of whistle-blowers by uploading data from thousands of extraneous sources to obscure the real message.

“The Fifth Estate” uses the same tactic: The grating biography has relevant things to say about ethics and journalism, but it’s relentlessly engulfed in distracting cinematic panache.

The film begins with an effects-heavy montage of ways mankind has issued information, from cuneiform to the printing press to radio to TV. Thematically, it’s a fine look at how communication is an ever-shifting creature. It’s also the first indication the movie is in love with its own style.

Director Bill Condon (responsible for the last two “Twilight” blockbusters and “Dreamgirls”) leans on goofy sight gags, unbridled edits, look-at-me camera moves and pounding techno music to liven up scenes of people typing on laptops. (“The Social Network” found a different way around this challenge: crafting strong characters and rich dialogue.)

The tale begins as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) recruits aspiring hacker Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) to develop his site into a haven for anonymous covert data. Soon they are breaking info that mainstream media won’t touch, bringing down billion-dollar banks and corrupt Third World leaders in the process.

“Courage is contagious,” Assange explains.

But it is something other than courage that compels him to post thousands of covert U.S. government documents. The decision fractures the men’s friendship and introduces all kinds of thorny dilemmas. What’s worse, keeping reprehensible secrets or the potentially fatal fallout from exposing them?

The tagline of “The Fifth Estate” asks, “Hero or traitor: You decide.” Yet the film itself is pretty clear where it stands: Assange is a jerkwad. Even with an actor as charismatic as Cumberbatch (so formidable in “Star Trek Into Darkness”), the character is more narcissist than revolutionary. Behind his stringy, shock-white hair — he looks like a “Hellboy” villain — the Australian media mogul could have devolved into camp if not for the commanding voice and bitter authority of Cumberbatch.

Meanwhile, Brühl barely registers. He was unforgettable as a methodical racer in “Rush,” but here he is forced to play little more than a straight man to Cumberbatch’s huckster tyrant. (Keep in mind that the movie’s source material is based on two books, one by British journalists and the other a tell-all by Domscheit-Berg. WikiLeaks itself has labeled the film “fiction masquerading as fact.”)

The fourth estate is an 18th century British term referring to the press. Thus, the “fifth estate” is the implied next evolution. A cool title — less cool when one of the old-school newspaper bigwigs (David Thewlis) actually explains this rather than letting the audience figure it out.

The screenplay by Josh Singer (a writer for TV’s “Fringe” and “West Wing”) would read better if it weren’t shot like a commercial for a five-hour energy drink. His most “West Wing-y” moments come during scenes involving Laura Linney as some State Department official whose Libyan diplomat pal is put in jeopardy by the leaks. This leads to “Argo”-esque moments of border crossing that never mesh with the rest of the flick.

Ultimately, the presentation of “The Fifth Estate’s” message constantly interferes with the message itself.

Can’t imagine anything the actual Assange might find more irritating.

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