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WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and his colleague, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), team up to become underground watchdogs of the privileged and powerful. On a shoestring, they create a platform that allows whistleblowers to anonymously leak covert data, shining a light on the dark recesses of government secrets and corporate crimes. Soon, they are breaking more hard news than the world's most legendary media organizations combined. But when Assange and Berg gain access to the biggest trove of confidential intelligence documents in U.S. history, they battle each other and a defining question of our time: what are the costs of keeping secrets in a free society – and what are the costs of exposing them? (From Disney’s official synopsis)

 Fifth Estate, The
Bill Condon, who began his career making tawdry made-for-TV movies and a decent sequel to Bernard Rose’s Candyman ( Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh) became an awards-season standby with lovable Oscar-bait. Following Gods and Monsters (still his best film), Kinsey, and Dreamgirls, Condon’s Academy-friendly career was paused to make the two-part finale to the goofy Twilight franchise ( Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Parts One and Two). They were definitely the two best movies in the series, but were not in keeping with the director’s almost shrewd career trajectory. The Fifth Estate is definitely more in line with the mainstream/award-friendly ‘challenging’ pictures he has built his legacy on. Like those films, it is based on a true story, though it changes the formula by being a contemporary piece (the others took place between the ‘40s and ‘70s). Condon’s direction follows suit, forgoing the deliberate, classic Hollywood look of Gods and Monsters and Dreamgirls for slicker, more modern imagery. Unfortunately, Condon seems to be over-compensating and uses an aggressively modern style that often feels like an impression of modernity and, frankly, looks kind of like a cheap BBC movie with its constantly swishing, hand-held HD camera work. This look grows exhausting and runs out of steam before the story hits its stride – the game-changing Bradley Manning leaks that threatened to tumble governments and put people in real danger.

First-time feature writer Josh Singer’s script (he’s worked on a number of television shows, including Law & Order: SVU and Fringe) is based on the accounts of two non-fiction books – Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website and David Leigh & Luke Harding’s WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy, along with a number of news media anecdotes. The result is mixed at best, often due to Singer’s attempts to turn the academic subject matter into a relatively traditional movie narrative, including chronological momentum when flashbacks would’ve probably sufficed. In preparation for this review, I watched Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets, an exhaustive documentary about WikiLeaks and Assange’s rise to prominence . This may have loaded me up with too much historical information, allowing me to anticipate the next phase of the story, but I believe that the basic narrative is set up effectively enough for even someone without any previous knowledge to follow. Some of the political espionage that takes place outside of the main story is fluffy with unfocused buzzwords, but ends up coming together in the end. It’s also smart to build the narrative around Domscheit-Berg’s point of view rather than Assange's, because it hides the charismatic leader’s pathetic humanity beneath a shield of mystery. Of course, the script is based on Domscheit-Berg’s book, so his version of the truth must be taken with the appropriate grain of salt, especially when he makes himself out to be the constant voice of reason.

 Fifth Estate, The
Unfortunately, while steadily unveiling Assange’s dark side, Singer over-simplifies every other human drama in the story, including his main character’s. Like so many other based-on-a-true-story movies, The Fifth Estate puddle-jumps through the important events and skipping a lot of the humanity of the situation. We wander in and out of Domscheit-Berg’s domestic life and are expected to care when he and his girlfriend have a spat, even when we can’t recall her name and have no idea how much time has passed since we last saw them together. The lack of investment leads to a lack of suspense, though this is a minor issue in comparison to Singer’s overuse of shorthand clichés (though the worst of these tend to be editing tricks, which may be Condon’s doing). Condon’s pedigree and the incendiary subject matter attracted a fantastically talented international cast, each member of which does their best to give these characters depth. Most of the actors are more valuable for their familiar faces and undeniable charisma, turning the proceedings into a parade of ‘oh, that guy/girl’ reactions. Benedict Cumberbatch gets to bite into Assange’s weirder personality quirks, I suppose, but it feels more like an impression than real acting.

 Fifth Estate, The

Video


The Fifth Estate was shot using various Arri digital HD cameras and is presented here in 2.35:1, 1080p video. Condon and cinematographer Tobias Schliessler create a consistent look that is anchored in the crisp lines, smooth colour blends, and high contrast shadows. Details and textures are consistently sharp without haloes or noisy overlaps (the establishing cityscapes are particularly gorgeous). In fact, the sharpness even extends to the softer backdrops and gives away some of the film’s less impressive green screen work. The clarity is almost breathtaking with only hints of digital grain in the darkest scenes, specifically those rare images that were shot outdoors. The film’s print ads implied that it had a dated steel blue palette, the kind of thing that turned into visual shorthand for ‘technology’ in the early ‘00s, but the actual film is pretty eclectic in terms of colour choices. Yes, the base hues are teals and blues, but these are regularly blended and highlighted by punchy reds, creamy oranges, and rich lavenders. Again, these colours are clean, even when the most intense, neon pigments are being fused.

 Fifth Estate, The

Audio


The Fifth Estate is presented in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio sound. Considering the lack of action and supernatural elements, the aggressive qualities of this track are a little surprising, yet the sound is rarely overblown or swimming in unnecessary elements. The mix follows the rules of its environment (bars/clubs are warm and damp with crowd noise/music, lecture halls/office buildings are dry and flecked with whispered voices and clicking computer consoles) and gives every incidental noise a little boost. The stereo and surround channels are busy, even during the talkiest dialogue sequences. The busiest sound design comes out of the scenes where digital effects are used to represent the intricacies of the Internet – something too abstract to have a ‘real’ noise of its own (modem sounds are kind of outdated now). Here, the buzz of the information super highway is represented by hundreds of voices leaking from every channel and swirling around the viewer. Composer Carter Burwell’s score is uneven, but, when it works, it works like gangbusters, especially the well-built opening title track. The techno dance additions are definitely too ‘on-the-nose,’ but they certainly sound big, brassy, and brimming with bass.

 Fifth Estate, The

Extras


The special features here are relatively brief, including:
  • The Submission Platform: Visual Effects (10:20, HD) -– An exploration of the film’s cinematic representation of the WikiLeaks ‘newsroom.’
  • In Camera: Graphics (6:20, HD) – On the process of capturing the text-based interactions and making them a part of the actors’ performances.
  • Scoring Secrets (9:20, HD) – A look at Carter Burwell’s score and the input he took from other musicians.
  • Trailers & a TV spot


 Fifth Estate, The

Overall


The Fifth Estate suffers because director Bill Condon and writer Josh Singer turn the unique subject matter into another run-of-the-mill biopic (about Daniel Domscheit-Berg, not Julian Assange). Facts are dully scratched from a checklist of important events without any significant emotion or dramatic connective tissue and very few major stylistic concepts (specifically a sort of infinite office building that represents the WikiLeaks website). There’s also the fact that Bradley/Chelsea Manning, the Army intelligence analyst that leaked thousands of classified documents, is an especially intriguing individual that is only represented here in photographs. Perhaps there’s an additional biopic on the way? Anyway, this Blu-ray release looks and sounds practically perfect, but does not feature much in the way of extra features. In lieu of supplemental material, I suggest viewers check out Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets while it’s still on Netflix streaming.

 Fifth Estate, The
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and have been resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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