Review: The Fifth Estate

Benedict Cumberbatch is certainly an up and coming actor. He has clearly arrived and is in demand, from the Sherlock mini-series in Great Britain scheduled for a few more episodes starting in January, to the Hobbit movies where he will eventually appear as the voice of Smaug, to playing a non-Asian-looking Khan in the last Star Trek movie to now playing Julian Assange in the movie The Fifth Estate. While Cumberbatch has arrived, the box office figures for The Fifth Estate have been disappointing, to say the least. I saw the movie a week ago with my daughter and her friend. It was a matinee and we were three of only four people in the theater. Wikileaks is apparently boring to mass audiences.

But there are Cumberbatch groupies out there. These women are called Cumberbitches and my 24-year-old daughter is one of them. “Seeing Benedict Cumberbatch with white hair! What isn’t there to love?” And Cumberbatch’s heavily dyed hair is compelling and often mesmerizing even when, as we learn later, Assange secretly dyed it too. If you wanted to stand out in a crowd, it’s hard to imagine a more effective way to do so. This is not a senior citizen greyish white, this is white. It’s almost as freaky as seeing someone with purple hair. My daughter was right: the hair was mesmerizing!

As is Cumberbatch, who plays what I hope is not an over the top portrayal of the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. If it is true to Assange, well, he certainly is one crazy but fanatical dude: a toxic mixture of tech wizard, troubled soul and idealist. In Assange’s case, it was that hidden silos of damning information should be exposed, no matter what the cost to national security or innocent people. The truth will set you free and/or leave you dead. When you are the truth teller with dangerous secrets to distribute, as Assange, Edward Snowden and others have found out, there is quickly a bounty on your head. Assange spends much of the movie dodging people who don’t like him, not to mention shamelessly lying about Wikileaks’ global scope (“We have hundreds of people working for us”). He finds all sort of ways to be annoying including interrupting his cohort Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl) from getting intimate with his nerdy girlfriend Anke (Alicia Vikander), who is quickly disenchanted by Assange’s passion and bizarre behavior.

Cumberbatch is a fine actor. He plays Assange with such intensity that he pretty much drowns out the other actors in his scenes. This is made worse by the director’s choice to show mostly close shots with handheld cameras, so you can’t help but be mesmerized by Cumberbatch’s portrayal and Assange’s white hair. I suspect that Cumberbatch is playing Assange authentically, in which case I have to give him credit for what would otherwise be a case of overacting worthy of Mommy Dearest. It’s hard for other actors to get a word in edgewise, which is another reason to feel sorry for poor Daniel Berg and his frequent problem with coitus interruptus, courtesy of Assange.

Assange in a room is someone incapable of not drawing attention. If it appears that attention is going elsewhere he will quickly redirect it back to him. Assange, as Cumberbatch portrays him, is fascinating and flawed, pretentious and pitiable, grandiose and guarded. When he reveals how he ended up this way, it becomes more understandable. Perhaps only someone with his wacky childhood could summon within himself the fire of commitment to turn the world upside down with his revelations. The only other actor in this movie that can hold his own against Cumberbatch is David Thewlis, who plays the journalist Nick Davies for the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper.

Director Bill Condon went for a style for this movie, likely in character with Assange’s inability to stay in any one place for any length of time. It involves handheld cameras, close shots, frequently frantic cuts and quick pans, with cameras frequently in motion. It is at times distracting but it is mostly effective.

One of the reasons this film didn’t do better at the box office is that it is a film for geeks, and we rarely amount to more than a tiny sliver of the population. It helps for you to be tech savvy and to be able to change context on a dime. No matter how fascinating you may find Assange’s white hair, you may be glad when this movie finally wraps up, because it feels like you are holding onto a wild bull. This is one geeky movie that may leave you a bit breathless.

It was interesting to inhabit Assange’s world for a little while, but 128 minutes was more than enough. After watching it you may feel the need to unwind on a beach in the Bahamas for a week, martini glass right at hand.

This is a hard movie to rate. It is technically well done, but the geek factor is quite high. You won’t forget Cumberbatch’s performance, but you may find yourself hoping you’ll never find yourself locked in a room with Julian Assange. Not to worry, he is holed up in a room in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He is hoping that if he stays there long enough he will evade charges for having sex with minors. In real life, as on the screen, Assange has boxed himself in by being too clever for too long.

3.1 out of four points.

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