Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Cinema File #311: "The Fifth Estate" Review

Ever since he first leapt into the public eye as the titular sleuth on Steven Moffet's Sherlock only a few years ago, Benedict Cumberbatch has effortlessly established himself as one of the most exciting and captivating actors working today. Not content with merely providing the definitive post-modern Holmes (suck it Elementary), he's gone on to breathe new life into more than one iconic role, be it as Smaug in The Hobbit Trilogy or Khan in the recent Star Trek: into Darkness, in both cases turning in performances that elevated otherwise lackluster films by the sheer strength of his charisma and screen presence. In last year's The Fifth Estate, Cumberbatch took on a character different from any I'd ever seen him attempt previously, and as much I want to be able to say that the man can make anything work, I have to admit that after seeing his first foray truly against type, I was more than a little disappointed.

The Fifth Estate is the story of Julian Assange, the controversial founder of WikiLeaks, dubbed either a hero or a traitor depending on who you ask for his efforts to democratize information and protect the identity of whistle blowers. Before you can even get to what is specifically wrong with the movie, it suffers from the general problem that afflicts all biopics like this where the subject in question is still very much alive and active in whatever activity made them famous. The story of Julian Assange is not so much told in this movie, because that story isn't over yet. It isn't about the rise and fall of an enigmatic public figure, because that arc hasn't actually played itself out yet in real life. While on paper the international intrigue surrounding his exploits seems like perfect fodder for a dramatic thriller, the result can't help but be somewhat anti-climactic, because the story its based on hasn't yet reached its climax, and because its so recent, there isn't even all that much to be surprised or shocked by.

The movie tries its best to manufacture the sort of tension that its dark and ominous tone requires, but after a while it just comes across as silly and hamfisted. As the Wikileaks phenomenon explodes and Assange's small crew become the target of world leaders and governments, the movie takes on the suspenseful crouch of a Bourne film, but since we know there are no super assassins or gun play of any kind involved, it fizzles at every failed promise of escalation. The most benign moments are inflated with overly dramatic music stings, as when everyone stares at their computer screen in shock as a youtube video shows Newt Gingrich on FOX News calling Assange a traitor, or when Assange and his closest confidant have a falling out and engage in - wait for it - a TWITTER WAR! They even give Assange a Sherlock-esque Mind Palace to make the most boring activity seem interesting, but its so transparent that it might have taken me out of the movie had I been able to engage with it at all in the first place.

Cumberbatch's take on Assange is admittedly interesting, and easily the best part of a movie that has literally nothing else going for it, but even then its only really entertaining as a curiosity. In order to play this fake albino computer geek, Cumberbatch is forced to sublimate all of his natural charm and wit under an awkward lisp and creepy make up job that is certainly authentic, but so much so that its more off putting than entertaining. The result is not unlike Will Smith's recent performance in After Earth, showcasing none of his natural charisma and thus never playing to his strengths as an actor. Assange feels all at once like a deliberate step away from the suave and sophisticated roles Cumberbatch is so well known for and at the same time a twisted reflection of them. Though socially awkward and introverted, Assange is mysterious and hyper-intelligent, and the movie wants so desperately to create a parallel between him and his targets, both defined by their secrets, but in the end he just comes across like an arrogant tool whether you agree with him or not, his biggest mystery being why his hair is white, which isn't a weird joke I just made, but an actual through-line of the movie.

It has been suggested to me that I should pair this review with one about the recent documentary We Steal Secrets, which covers much of the same material without any of what I will generously refer to as the drama. I have not seen this film, though it is available on Netflix streaming as of this writing and if the topic interests you, I'd suggest checking it out before even bothering with The Fifth Estate. I can't bring myself to watch any more about any of this, which I suppose is the most damning criticism I can give to the movie, considering its job is at the very least to make me more interested in its subject and not actively averse to it. The freedom of dramatic license is supposed to make it easier to tell a story where the reality is somewhat lacking in narrative potential, but if this is as much as they could mine from this story, I can't imagine the unvarnished truth will be any more satisfying. Whether you think he was right or wrong to do what he did, after watching The Fifth Estate, the bigger question will be why you ever cared.

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