Screened Out – The Fifth Estate

By : Stephen Miller
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Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, David Thewlis

WikiLeaks and its leader Julian Assange changed the modern world. It is said that his website released more world-shattering, confidential information in six months than the Washington Post did in the previous 30 years. We’re still trying to figure out what it all means.

The Fifth Estate, a movie based on two autobiographies, is way too cluttered to give us any insight.

The main story, with a dozen interruptions, is about Brühl’s Schmidt, a computer programmer wooed by Assange (Cumberbatch). Assange promises that he is the lead of over a hundred hackers helping people safely release confidential information to the world. The cause requires volunteers to give up their personal lives, make financial sacrifice, and even put their lives in danger.

There are so many tangents here. There’s a government attaché (Linney) trying to manage data fallout. There’s a reporter (Thewlis) coming to grips with the changing world of journalism. There are Kenyan uprisings, Libyan spies, corrupt Swiss banks, the list goes on and on. We didn’t need to see them all in one movie.

Buried in all this are interesting tales calling out for narrative structure, for emotion, and for concise drive. The Fifth Estate should have touched on everything by only focusing on one story.


Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci are under-utilized in a crowded story.

Here’s one angle that gets short shrift; Assange may have put millions of lives in danger with his release of 90,000 secret government documents on US and UK involvement in the Afghanistan War. A private, Bradley Manning, disguised all this data on a fake Lady Gaga CD and made personal contact with Assange to get the info out on WikiLeaks. Manning, now in prison, has also recently come out as transgender, starting the process of living life as a woman while behind bars. That’s one fascinating story that’s under-told here.

Assange’s organization also released 250,000 diplomatic documents that held a comic magnifying glass up to the rude, hilarious things governments say behind each other’s backs, about hairstyles and personalities. A satire about bitchy diplomacy would have been fun.

Ratings Key

See it now! Buy the DVD! Quote lines at parties!

Definitely worth the price of admission

It’s useful as a distraction

Maybe if someone else pays and you need a nap

Slightly worse than eternal damnation

All of this is touched upon in The Fifth Estate, but the film is too chaotic to give us any sense of the individuals or their emotional motivations. Director Bill Condon has been infinitely better than this (Gods and Monsters, The Others, Kinsey) and relatively worse (the last two Twilight films). His actors, although there are way too many of them, all do a credible job spouting the facts they’re given with an energy that could pass as characterization. Condon also tries to add graphic aplomb to people hunched over computers for hours. But it all feels like he’s trying to blend the line between documentary and storytelling, trying and failing.

Perhaps the average audiences don’t think much about this difference. However, filmmakers should. Documentaries are the presenting of data, events, dramatizations, and interview for the dissemination of information. Movies, on the other hand, are all about intriguing characters and visuals, emotion and eye candy.

The Fifth Estate should have been a documentary.

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