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The Fifth Estate

(2013) ** R
128 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Director: Bill Condon. Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Dan Stevens, Alicia Vikander, Daniel Brühl, David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi, Carice van Houten.

/content/films/4597/1.jpgRising star Benedict Cumberbatch's stated intention in playing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was to portray the man as more than "just the weird, white haired Australian dude wanted in Sweden, hiding in an embassy behind Harrods." But Bill Condon's film The Fifth Estate doesn't go far enough beyond the limited impression Cumberbatch describes.

Josh Singer's highly scrutinized screenplay for The Fifth Estate derives from the 2011 books Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World's Most Dangerous Website by former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played in the film by Rush's Daniel Brühl) and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding of Britain's venerable newspaper The Guardian. In telling the story of the news-leaking, whistleblowing WikiLeaks website, The Fifth Estate makes the fundamental mistake of taking Domscheit-Berg's perspective and allowing Assange to become the hero's antagonist.

This is not to say that The Fifth Estate doesn't try to have it both ways: the film paints Assange as an unethical master manipulator, an imperious egotist, and a white-haired weirdo, but it also hammers the point that WikiLeaks marked a revolution in journalism, the next evolutionary step connoted by the title (the film opens with a snazzy montage hurtling from the image of The Ninety-Five Theses being nailed to a door to the tussle of ailing print journalism and superpowered electronic media).

Partly, the film establishes WikiLeaks' importance through Assange's own public appraisals—many of them grandiose—and partly by the scrambling reaction of government officials (Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci representing the State Department, and Anthony Mackie White House communications). Linney's character muses of Assange, "I don't know which one of us history's going to judge more harshly," but The Fifth Estate begins the work of harshly judging Assange, for his dubious choices (principally his seemingly capricious, perhaps lazy refusal to redact anything, including addresses and phone numbers) and his reckless approach to business, his colleagues, and sensitive government information.

Covering roughly 2007 to 2010 (with a tacked-on meta ending of Cumberbatch's Assange commenting on, and ironically justifying, the film you're watching), Singer and Condon hurtle through WikiLeaks touchstones, as Assange enables exposes of Swiss bank Julius Bär, the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, Guantanamo Bay, 9/11 communications, and climactically the "Cablegate" launched by Bradley Manning. Flashy graphics, slick editing, and the employment of mirror sites and cryptophones contribute to the impression of a high-tech paranoid thriller.

But The Fifth Estate turns out to be reductive in another way: it plays like the account of a jilted lover, with the would-be dazzle attempting to misdirect from the ordinariness of the personal melodrama. Workaholism and Assange's heedless intrusiveness threaten Domscheit-Berg's relationship with his girlfriend (Alicia Vikander), while Domscheit-Berg plays interference-running Watson to Cumberbatch's near-autistic Holmes (Condon also tiresomely teases how the two men are like a gay couple, complete with an awkward dinner-with-the-parents scene).

Ultimately, Assange's public outcry against the movie begins to look pretty justified: he is the two-dimensional (Bond) villain of the piece, at least as interested in self-aggrandizement as in what he calls "a whole new form of social justice." Not surprisingly, Cumberbatch gives a commanding performance, but corrective rewrites to the worrying early drafts of the script obviously were too little, too late to do justice to the nuanced complexities of the man and his revolution.

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 1/28/2014

Distributor: Touchstone Home Entertainment

Disney's Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD release of The Fifth Estate delivers fine A/V and an unusual selection of extras focused on "technical" making-of matters. Not surprisingly, The Fifth Estate looks just as it should in hi-def, which gets along well with the freshly minted film's crisp, cool blues and bustling detail. Light grain evokes film, flesh tones are natural or as natural as the film's lighting schemes and filters allow), and a nice, deep black level compliments the overall well-calibrated contrast. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix never falls down on the job. This isn't by any means an action-packed film or one that's especially reliant on music, but the sound design comes home with its well-honed balance intact: dialogue is always entirely well-prioritized and clear, and rear channels do a good job of subtle immersion in the film's settings, especially the trade shows with their hubbub.

The bonuses avoid engaging in documentary examination of the film's subject matter, and Disney (perhaps saving some coin) also hasn't included any extras involving "above-the-line" talent, like a commentary or interviews with cast. Instead we get three featurettes about the film's design and audio-visual execution that'll please those looking for more breadth to their behind-the-scenes forays. "The Submission Platform: Visual Effects" (10:25, HD) finds director Bill Condon and production designer Mark Tildesley talking through the conception of the film's visual design and ways in which they went about executing it in sets and visual effects.

"In-Camera: Graphics" (6:25, HD) focuses specifically on what went into populating the productions's many practical on-camera screens, while "Scoring Secrets" (9:11, HD) lets the much-admired composer Carter Burwell explain his approach to scoring in general and this project in particular. Rounding out the disc are "Trailer & TV Spots" (6:34, HD). While more context for the film's subject would've been welcome, this Blu-ray release skillfully presents the film with some respectful and respectable extras.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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