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Sunday, October 20, 2013

"The Fifth Estate" Intriguing, Fun, Shallow

Everyone seems to be mad at this movie because everyone who talks about it comes to it with a strong opinion about Julian Assange, and they wanted the film to depict him as a savior or a monster. I didn't have those preconceptions and I enjoyed the film from the opening title sequence. That sequence depicts hands carving hieroglyphics in Ancient Egypt, illuminated manuscripts, the first printing press, newspapers, computers – the myriad ways humans communicate. It's a title sequence Frank Capra would love.

I found "The Fifth Estate" intriguing, fun, and moving. Benedict Cumberbatch is very good as Assange. The movie wants you to be impressed by him at first, but slowly to see his feet of clay, and Cumberbatch does that job. Daniel Bruhl plays Daniel Domscheit Berg, Assange's partner. Bruhl expresses disappointed hero worship very well. Assange is invited to Berg's home for dinner, and he disrespects Berg's polite parents. That intimate, believable scene makes you hate Assange in a way that his secret-releasing shenanigans might not.

"The Fifth Estate" struggles, as all computer-related films do, to depict life on a computer. It creates a fake office with the sky as ceiling where Assange's "volunteers" work. Assange describes his submission process at Wikileaks and pages appear onscreen. These visual flourishes are fun.

The movie is interesting and fast-moving but not very deep. There are very big questions at play here and "The Fifth Estate" does not engage them deeply. Laura Linney plays Sarah, an American agent whose contact, Tarek, is endangered by Assange's revelations. There is some tension as Tarek flees Libya. Will he get out before Assange outs him, or will he and his family be captured and perhaps tortured by their oppressive government?

Perhaps if "The Fifth Estate" had been more art than docudrama it could have gone deeper. Imagine a conversation between Sarah and Assange. One could argue for the importance, both strategic and humanitarian, of state secrets, and the other could argue against. Other questions – aren't secrets inevitable? Accept it: there is stuff you are simply never going to know.

And, in the end, what difference did Assange make? The US is still in Afghanistan. Guantanamo still operates. People will pay more attention to Miley Cyrus twerking than to documents about torture in a Third World nation. Someone said once of the Cambodian genocide that no one will ever read all the documents the Khmer Rouge amassed. No one cares enough to do so.

Laura Linney is every bit the actor that Benedict Cumberbatch is. I'd love to have heard these two characters have this conversation.

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