‘The Fifth Estate’: Truth beats fiction

October 22, 2013

fifth estate

Pity the poor filmmaker who has to follow Alex Gibney in tackling any subject.

Gibney, the Oscar-winning documentarian, has made a string of tough, incisive nonfiction films examining such topics as Enron, the Iraq war and beyond. His 2010 documentary about crooked Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money,” was a comprehensive look at the influence-peddling scandal that should have sunk George W. Bush (and did cost Tom DeLay and several others their Congressional seats).

It was followed the next year by the late George Hickenlooper’s “Casino Jack,” with Kevin Spacey as Abramoff. A nice enough movie, but redundant and reductive compared to Gibney’s film.

Now we have “The Fifth Estate,” a competent but unremarkable film by Bill Condon – made that much more unnecessary by Gibney’s doc from earlier this year, “The Wikileaks Story: We Steal Secrets.”

In “The Fifth Estate,” Condon and writer Josh Singer, working from a couple of books by participants in the Wikileaks story, retell the tale of Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Once an unknown Australian, Assange got lots of officials’ pants in a wad when he created Wikileaks – and then started unleashing the military and diplomatic secrets of the U.S. and other countries.

In Condon’s telling, Assange is a haughty Aussie gadfly, a hacker since his teen years who wants to stop government secrecy. Information should be free – and he aims to liberate it. The rest of the film is a blend of his major Wikileaks efforts, examples of his poor interpersonal skills and his secrecy-driven relations with major press organizations when he leaked diplomatic cables in 2011.

Condon attempts visual metaphors for the vastness of cyberspace and the speed with which electronic information travels. But they’re way too analog: an infinite number of Assanges sitting at an infinite number of aging metal desks, like digital Magritte.

Otherwise, his notion of drama is people debating Assange’s character and ethics, followed by Cumberbatch swooping in with his silver Assange wig, undercutting everything that’s just been said by either out-thinking or out-humbling the people who are questioning him.

It’s by-the-numbers biopic, despite the presence of the perfectly cast Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl as his sidekick. For good measure, we get Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as a pair of State Department placeholders, giving performances that are deeper than the script seems to call for.

Story-wise, however, it’s a simplified, overly dramatized version of a more complex story. Assange, the dramatic character, isn’t nearly as interesting as the real Assange.

If you want an insightful, provocative story about Julian Assange – love him, hate him or in between – try Gibney’s terrific film. Condon’s “The Fifth Estate” is like a Reader’s Digest condensed book, by comparison.

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