Blu-ray Review: The Fifth Estate

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Why did The Fifth Estate fail to capture the interest of the general movie-going public? Though modestly budgeted, the story of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks fell flat on its face upon hitting theaters in October 2013. Start with the title. The “fifth estate” refers to the alternative online media (bloggers, etc). Appropriate enough, given the subject matter, but as the title of a would-be thriller it doesn’t work as a hook. Instead, the filmmakers banked on the “ripped from the headlines” immediacy of the story and the growing popularity of star Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC’s Sherlock, Star Trek Into Darkness).

Unfortunately, the activities of Julian (Cumberbatch) and his WikiLeaks associate Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) were not inherently cinematic to begin with. The problem with The Fifth Estate isn’t the lack of an interesting subject, but in the way that subject has been visually conceived by director Bill Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer. Based on a pair of books (Domscheit-Berg’s Inside WikiLeaks and David Leigh & Luke Harding’s WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy), the decision was made to craft a techno thriller. A character study would’ve been more on-target, as the scope of The Fifth Estate simply isn’t wide-reaching enough to convey the global impact of Assange’s leaking of thousands of sensitive government documents.

Fifth Estate 1.jpgThe real Assange apparently condemned the project, believing it was intended to smear him and his website. If anything, the movie remains naggingly on-the-fence in its portrayal of the enigmatic Australian. Assange became a polarizing household name following his 2010 publishing of more than 90,000 U.S. government documents (mostly classified) concerning the war in Afghanistan. We see a few U.S. officials, including those by Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci, but Condon never really establishes the context well enough. There is a presupposition that the audience will already know the basics of the Assange/WikiLeaks saga. The story is too big, too complex to squeeze into a two-hour thriller about two on-again, off-again friends and their computer-hacking exploits.

That’s not to say The Fifth Estate is a terrible movie. In fact, it’s quite watchable and is buoyed by strong performances by Cumberbatch and Brühl (very different than his excellent turn in Ron Howard’s Rush). The nature of their friendship is one of the more interesting aspects of the story, with a distinct (though one would presume unintentional) tinge of homoeroticism casting a strange shadow on their interactions. Daniel only ever has time for Julian, never his wife Anke (Alicia Vikander). Julian is rather asexual, passionate only about his website and his relationship with Daniel. During the joltingly meta conclusion (in which Julian briefly discusses the movie that would become The Fifth Estate), we’re told of sexual assault charges that Assange faces. It comes out of the blue and seems rather inconsequential in relation to the rest of the film.

Fifth Estate 2.jpgThere are tonal problems which result in an uneven narrative, though we patiently wait for things to really catch fire and gel. On one hand, it’s about the limits of loyalty within a business partnership (one for which, Daniel exasperatingly points out, there was no contract). On the other, it’s about grappling over ethical responsibilities when reporting news. Is any of this government business justifiably confidential? Is Julian correct in his fervent belief in total transparency, even if it compromises the safety of his sources? Daniel doesn’t think so. There are big questions at the center of The Fifth Estate, but the filmmakers were more interested in using empty, music video imagery to convey the transfer of information via cyberspace.

At least the visual presentation is an unqualified knockout, with a texture-rich, detailed image. Tobias Schliessler’s cinematography is augmented by an unusually large number of green screen effects shots, but it all looks seamless. It’s a dark movie with a color palette that leans toward deep, cool blues. Still, flashes of bold, brilliant color enliven the proceedings and really stand out in this 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer.

Fifth Estate 3.jpgThere’s also a lot to like about the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. For an essentially talkie picture, the mix manages to expand to the surround channels quite effectively. However inert some of the “typing on computers” sequences come across, the voices and effects emanating from the rear channels work very well. Carter Burwell’s tense, tingly score is also spread out across the spectrum. LFE activity is limited, which is quite understandable given the nature of the film.

There’s probably a great story behind the making of The Fifth Estate, possibly far more compelling than the movie itself. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray supplements avoid telling that story. Instead of director’s or writer’s commentary, we’re given three featurettes that detail the special effects and music. If the filmmakers didn’t want to discuss the challenges in adapting Julian Assange’s story, there could’ve at least been a documentary piece discussing the whole WikiLeaks phenomenon. Oh well.

The Fifth Estate Blu-ray combo pack also includes a standard DVD and digital copy. Available January 28, 2014 from Touchstone Home Entertainment.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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