It comes out today, so I’m gonna be honest with you guys — I didn’t super enjoy The Fifth Estate. I thought I was going to, because I’m really interested in the whole Wikileaks saga, and I love movies that are based on true stories, but this film felt sort of like what would happen if you asked someone to give a class presentation on Wikileaks and then handed them tens of millions of dollars to make it look fancy.
If you don’t know the first thing about Julian Assange and you’re not interested in having any sort of opinion about him, watching this movie is a reasonable way to achieve that goal. But if you wanted to walk into a movie and have a visceral, emotional experience that you couldn’t replicate simply by reading the book the movie was based on, then you might leave the theater as disappointed as I was.
The film detailed the emergence of Wikileaks onto the scene, a website designed to protect the identity of whistle-blowers interested in releasing information damaging to the companies or institutions that they work within. The site is based around a platform that hides relevant information under layers and layers of useless data to disguise it, so that even when the story does go public, there’s still no way to determine the source of the leak. It’s how Assange was able to publish exposes on Guantanamo Bay, the 2007 Baghdad air strikes, and many more events that the government would have preferred to keep secret.
And while it was nice that I learned all that while sitting in the dark and looking at a screen for 128 minutes, I think I might have preferred to do the research myself and present it in a more exciting way, except for one thing…Benedict Cumberbatch.
Benedict played Julian Assange, adopting his Australian accent and loping physicality for a complete, incredible transformation. I don’t know if he had prosthetics on or if he was just holding his face differently, but he was pretty mesmerizing to watch. It was all that really kept me connected to the story while we scrolled through pages of indecipherable code and clicked our way over hundreds of computer keys and the relationship between Julian and his former partner of sorts Daniel Berg (played by Daniel Brühl) deteriorated further and further.
Because Benedict is seriously incredible to watch. He wasn’t enough to save this movie, but he did single-handedly give me the first stirrings of confusion about the character of Julian. Things that made me feel like he was more than just a two-dimensional character, even though they weren’t followed up on by the director and the script. I felt like he was boxed in by a limited vision and a fairly dry, emotionless plot, so any feeling he was able to inject was entirely his own, and very admirable.
So yeah, bottom line, in another film, Benedict would probably be up for awards for his portrayal of Julian Assange, but in this one, his excellent work was only enough to make it watchable, and no more. Better luck in the two other buzzy films you’re in this Oscar season, Bennybatch. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that they make better use of you.