Movie review: Depiction of new media in “The Fifth Estate” is old hat

By Columbus Alive
From the October 17, 2013 edition

Since the dawn of the internet, filmmakers have struggled with varying levels of success to conjure cinematic excitement around the drab sight of someone staring at a monitor and typing.

Director Bill Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer take a novel approach to the challenge for “The Fifth Estate,” a chronicle of the rise of citizen journalism site Wikileaks and its lightning rod founder, Julian Assange. But overall, this depiction of new media is old hat.

Adapted from two books about Wikileaks, including the tell-all by Assange’s former co-conspirator Daniel Domscheit-Berg, “The Fifth Estate” focuses mainly on the relationship between the two men. From the moment Berg (Daniel Bruhl from “Inglourious Basterds) runs into Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) at a hacker’s conference, the corporate coder is a true believer in the quest for high-level transparency that Assange and Wikileaks represent.

As Assange explains the site’s workings, its layers of coding to protect sources and the alleged army of volunteers behind the project, Condon visualizes his words as a seemingly infinite office space filled with desks and floating bits of information. Text messages sent on the fly to Berg by Assange as he travels the world and collects new data for the site scroll across the screen in bright bits of digital graphics.

Between these touches and his frequent use of quick cuts and spinning cameras, Condon’s visuals are excessively busy and self-conscious.

There’s also a dispiriting lack of inspiration in the handling of Berg’s character and his awakening to the dangers of sharing un-redacted information. Other characters, particularly David Thewlis’ old media journalist, are little more than mouthpieces for the range of opinions about Assange, his tactics and his impact.

As Assange, Cumberbatch nails the mannerisms, the arrogance and the shock of white hair. But as written, his character is nothing more exotic than a passionate, inscrutable a--hole, despite a third act attempt at establishing depth via dime store psychoanalysis.

It’s an awfully pat and artificial treatment of a story about the pursuit of unadulterated truth. And despite the visual fanciness, as a moviegoing experience, it’s about as subtle and scintillating as a pop-up ad.