Movie review: 'Fifth Estate' exposes Wikileaks whistle-blower

"The Fifth Estate" is so fast-paced and dense with developments that it's like watching history with your finger on the fast-forward button.

Maybe that is only appropriate, given its subject matter of WikiLeaks, the personalities behind the site for watchdogs and whistle-blowers, how it turned the mainstream media from skeptics to partners and also cracked open debates about keeping, exposing or editing secrets in record time.

'The Fifth Estate'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

  • Starring:

    Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl.

  • Rating:

    R for language and some violen.

Director Bill Condon seems to subscribe to the oft-repeated line in the movie about how "courage is contagious." His dramatization, written by Josh Singer, is nothing if not ambitious, starting with a capsule history of how information is disseminated and going full speed ahead with the story of WikiLeaks and the men who launched or nurtured it.

Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) endorses the Oscar Wilde quote, "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth" while computer wizard Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl) toils behind the scenes as ally and then adversary.

The site was launched in late 2006 to provide a secure platform for whistle-blowers and leakers to post secret newsworthy documents without making their identities known.

No target was too big or too much of a potential tinderbox, as with a Swiss bank apparently helping clients launder money or police accused of killings in Kenya. WikiLeaks published pager messages sent during 9/11, posted video of a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters that killed a dozen people in Baghdad and eventually helped to open the faucet on hundreds of thousands of U.S. military documents and secret diplomatic cables.

So you're thinking, tell me something I don't know from looking at headlines on my phone?

"The Fifth Estate" tracks the recent rise and fall (and exile in the Ecuadoran embassy) of Mr. Assange, the way he challenged mainstream media to reassess the notion of news and asks whether the world has a right to know, well, just about everything a whistle-blower can get his hands on.

This could be starchy, regurgitated material, but in the hands of Mr. Condon -- and Mr. Cumberbatch, who is a dramatic doppelganger for the WikiLeaks founder -- it can be electrifying. But it's like watching a train speed by so quickly that you can barely see the faces at the windows or read the writing on the side of the cars.

It provides rich fodder for dialogue about social justice, government transparency and putting lives or ways of life at risk. And yet it feels frantic at times, as if you're listening to someone tell a story before the elevator doors swoosh shut.

That is because it has so much ground to cover, some of which was examined in the informative Alex Gibney documentary, "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks," which was at the Harris Theater in June and is now on DVD.

Mr. Assange continues to remain something of a mystery -- a man with secrets of his own regarding his boyhood, that signature white hair and the children he reportedly has fathered -- and a complex mixture of intelligence, single-mindedness, arrogance and what many would call recklessness.

The messenger has overshadowed the message in many ways, but the movie, to its credit, tries to focus on both historic, moving targets.


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: First Published October 17, 2013 8:00 PM


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