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Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Fifth Estate: Don't. Just, don't.

It often feels kinda cheap to ~review a movie just to tear it apart, but OH MY GOD The Fifth Estate was so terrible that I need to do this for catharsis purposes. And also to warn you that unless you're a die-hard Cumberbatch fan, you need to avoid this movie like the plague. Even the graphics over the intro credits were bizarrely cheesy -- ironically enough, since there's actually a scene in the movie where Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl, doing his best with some bad material) makes fun of Julian Assange for using shitty graphics during an early Wikileaks presentation. The overall tone was that of an early-2000s TV movie with an inexplicably high budget for casting world-famous actors in meaningless supporting roles.
To give you an idea of what you're in for if you do masochistically decide to watch this movie: it includes an actual scene where ~hacker code~ is projected across Benedict Cumberbatch's face while he types. JUST LIKE A CYBERPUNK MOVIE FROM 15 YEARS AGO. For real. If you were to ask me, What's the worst possible cliche you could include in a supposedly-serious movie about hackers? I'd answer immediately: code being projected across someone's face while they type. For those of you who have managed to miss out on this classic ~cyber~ movie detail, it was used during the hacking scene in Jurassic Park. Which came out in 1993. Not only this, but there's also at least one scene where Assange and Daniel Berg communicate via chat, while on opposite sides of the same table, and you see the chat scrolling across the screen and spoken in a voiceover at the same time. Needless to say, the chat is full of perfect grammar and punctuation, which as we all know is exactly how people communicate on the internet.

I'm not going to go into whether Benedict Cumberbatch managed a "realistic" portrayal of Julian Assange, because I generally think that there's more to biopic acting than just doing a super-accurate impersonation. Let's just say that Cumberbatch's performance was one of the only good aspects of the movie, and that the interpretation of Assange as an egotistical liar felt pretty accurate. It was the other characters that were the problem.

Most decent biopics fall into one of two categories: entertainingly fictionalised, or slavishly well-researched. The Fifth Estate had the potential to be a political thriller or a serious character study of Julian Assange, but it fell somewhere in between and ended up being neither. The dialogue was cheesy as hell, but the events themselves seemed relatively accurate, along with pointless but noticeable details like Assange's clothes and Domscheit-Berg's laptop. The worst result of this clash between ~realism and entertainment was the enormous cast of accomplished character-actors, who were all disastrously underutilised. You ended up sitting through a seemingly never-ending stream of "hey it's that guy!" scenes, but instead of seeing any actual characterisation or drama, it would just be Anthony Mackie and Peter Capaldi and David Thewlis reciting godawful TV-movie dialogue to each other yet again. There is literally a scene where Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney (both US government officials) have this painfully embarrassing exchange:
Laura Linney: These computer geeks are more dangerous than we ever could have predicted, Jim.
Stanley Tucci: Welcome to the revolution!
Yes, they really did use the phrase "computer geeks". 

Worse still is the depiction of women. I don't have any particular problem with fictionalising real people to make a biopic more interesting, which is just as well because The Fifth Estate was clearly fictionalising a lot. There is no way those characters could be that boring and cliched in real life. Unfortunately, the filmmakers were fictionalising for all the wrong reasons, particularly when it came to female characters. Laura Linney was OK, but every other woman in the film was like some godawful 1950s stereotype, from nagging girlfriends to background secretaries to worried to mothers to the gaggles of interchangeable one-line Assange groupies. Meanwhile, there were about a million scenes where groups of white men stood around exchanging portentious dialogue about Hacking or whatevs. Noooope.
Daniel Berg's girlfriend ended up with the worst depiction of all, reduced to a friendly office girl who (inexplicably) falls for him and then spends the rest of the movie either lying in bed waiting for a sex scene, or nagging him about how dinner's getting cold. Literally nagging him about how dinner is getting cold. If you google this woman IRL, her Twitter bio reads: "Open Government, freedom + transparency activist, chairwoman Pirate Party Brandenburg, Eastern Germany-socialized feminist." I know Julian Assange had a hissy-fit about this movie being a hatchet job, but TBH I think this woman has way more to complain about.
For the rest of the agony, I'm just gonna give you a bullet-point list. This movie includes such a rich and diverse array of shittiness that I can't face going into any more detail.
  • At least 70% of the dialogue was expository.
  • ... including multiple scenes where characters read newspaper articles or websites out loud to each other.
  • Seemingly unintentional allusions to dated cyberpunk movie tropes, ie secreal scenes in a Berlin squatter club full of punks and hippies, prseumably to give the illusion that hackers are, like, so cool, man.
  • Were they trying to make the "hacker conference" scenes look cool? Or were they making fun of hacker conferences for trying to look cool? I genuinely could not tell. 
  • Constant jump-cuts to new locations, with the city name scrawled across the screen in vaguely ~computery~ typeface.
  •  The only excuse for this many montages is if you're including a teen-movie-style makeover scene. Unfortunately, that never happened.
  • A scene where Cumberbatch was forced to deliver dialogue that sounded exactly like something from Sherlock. ie, "What must it be like to think like these boring, pedestrian idiots?" etc. One of the many, many times we started laughing out loud in the cinema. TERRIBLE.
  • They completely failed to point out the irony of Assange's obsession with covering up his personal life/the inner workings of Wikileaks. Considering the fact that the movie was colossally unsubtle in every other area, I'm gonna go ahead and assume that they just... didn't bother with this really obvious angle??
  • Noticeably terrible cinematography that coincidentally means you can't drink to dull the pain of the rest of the movie, because you'll just end up nauseated.
At its most basic level, The Fifth Estate failed to be entertaining and failed to be anything remotely resembling a thoughtful portrayal of a very complex story. Despite the fact that there were at least ten scenes where characters literally stood around explaining what was going on, it was as if the movie expected us to know everything already. Which isn't too unreasonable, because most people going to a Wikileaks movie probably know the vague outline of the narrative already. But it sure as hell made for some boring viewing.
P.S. In the interests of balance, there was one non-terrible aspect to this film: Alexander Siddig. The only character I actually cared about, partly because he was played by Alexander Siddig and partly because his story was more human than anyone else's. If The Fifth Estate had included more scenes where Laura Linney helped Alexander Siddig flee across the Egyptian border and fewer scenes where people stood around explaining what Wikileaks was, then it would've been significantly less unbearable to watch.

P.P.S. I expect this movie was meant to be thought-provoking, but the main question I find myself asking is: Does Julian Assange really dye his hair?


  1. The movie is set well before that, so it gets mentioned very briefly in some text at the end, and indicates that Julian lied about the situation (to the tune of, at first he said it was a totally fabrication and the accusers were strangers to him; later he admitted to knowing the women). The ending - lots of talking head bits of Cumberbatch as Assange - is establishing Assange's enormous ego, so while the mention is brief, it is definitely part of a larger piece establishing him as unreliable, so it's not dismissive.

    Mostly, I was overwhelmingly relieved that the movie didn't choose to extend that far into the story, because I was SURE (before attending) it would end up totally dismissing the charges as hokum, and then I would've walked out.

  2. Bless you for your clear head - even while drunk! This is a much more objective view than I was able to muster of the film, but then, I was watching it at the very first screening at the TIFF, and was distracted by trying to figure out if Benedict was present. (He was not.) I didn't even remember the code projected onto faces.

  3. they are NOT rape charges.

  4. "Assange's enormous ego" - I'm curious. Where do you get this? I've been following this story closely since the spring of 2010, both what he was doing and how people reacted to it, and one thing I've seen very clearly is that some people "get" him and others don't. Those that do get him seem to be more on his intellectual plane whilst those that don't seem to be a bit lacking in the IQ department and end up calling him all sorts of names, such as "narcissist" and so forth. I detect nothing in his makeup to indicate any of those epithets actually fit.

  5. Wow questioning his opponents IQs - classy move there. Also, I don't think anyone who uses the word 'narcissist' when there are shorter, four letter words available is really falling way below Assange's intellectual level.

  6. If I remember right, when Assange made that comment he had just been contacted by Al Jazeera and had just an hour previously heard about the Swedish newspaper headlines saying he was wanted for double rape, and these articles, of course, did not name the women making the complaint. If you knew that you hadn't raped anyone, and you knew the women you had slept with were only asking you to take a HIV test, but you read headlines that someone had reported you for rape, wouldn't you say "well, I don't know who is making these allegations"? That's not lying about the situation, that's making cautious and accurate statements because you don't know what the hell is going on.

    Isn't there a half-way point between dismissing the allegations (there are no formal charges, even today) as "hokum" and assuming they somehow MUST be true because "no smoke without fire"? I believe it's called the presumption of innocence, a widely recognised and vital legal principle.

  7. It's the old, old story. People read the same description of someone given to them by the establishment press over and over and over again and feel, even though they've never met him or even read stuff written in the first person, by Assange himself - someone revealing what they are really like through their own words - they somehow know what that person's character is like. I call it 'received opinion', bought secondhand as it were. It's easily countered, if they were interested enough, by watching video interviews of Assange - he's done lots so there's loads available on YouTube - and looking for those telltale signs of "narcissism", "monstrous ego" or "megalomania". Oddly enough, they don't seem to be there. I've just watched the other Wikileaks movie this weekend - Mediastan (which is a brilliant study of how the media really works, in Central Asia, London and New York) - which has footage in it of Assange going about his daily business. The man is unrecognisable as the figure that's been painted in the mainstream press.

    I agree with the poster below. There's no need to make nasty remarks about the IQ of people who've been fooled in this way. It is MUCH more a question of how powerful the media messaging is.

  8. Oh Moritz Bleibtreu no! D:

    (speaking of throwing character actors at this "tv movie"...)

    [Ugh, Disqus, why u not accept Twitter login >:( ]

  9. @Arbed121 I completely agree with you!
    The presumption of innonence is a very important legal principle, we are about to lose... For someone holding a masters degree in constitutionial law that's pretty scary....

  10. Thank you Liz, I've been wondering why quite a lot of people don't seem to understand him... I see him as a great teacher, he made me understand more of history then all the many years of my scholing combined.

  11. Thanks, I wasn't planning to see this, and I can now relax confident in my decision.

    Mediastan, on the other hand, I just watched and found surprisingly good.

  12. I was describing how the movie portrayed him. I'm not making a personal judgement.

  13. You know what? I was only here to talk about the movie. And, like I said, the movie is set before that incident. (Gav, geez, sorry.)

  14. Hackers did it better.

  15. But really, were we expecting anything else from Bill Condon? It only makes sense that his work reads like a TV movie; He's directed six of them. Also both Breaking Dawns.

    Which, granted, were probably the best of the Twilight movies, but only because they fell into the perfect sweet spot between total ridiculousness and a seeming lack of any knowledge that they were ridiculous. Which sounds sort of like what's going on here.

  16. a quick note-- if the subject matter is interesting to you, there's a fantastic doc about Julian Assange and the whole wikileaks thing called We Steal Secrets.

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