‘Fifth Estate’ tries in vain to find the right container for the tsunami around us - The Buffalo News
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‘Fifth Estate’ tries in vain to find the right container for the tsunami around us

The first thing that is very wrong about Bill Condon’s eminently watchable journalistic thriller “The Fifth Estate” is its rating: R for language and some violence.

Hooey. I don’t agree. The language simply wasn’t egregious enough for an “R” rating and the “violence” is of the nightly news variety. That is a rating for marketing purposes, not informational purposes. It’s trying to signal a specific adult audience rather than being accurate. If ever there were a movie that teens ought to be able to see freely, it’s this one, which is about the information revolution their generation is growing into.

Believe me, I’m under no illusion that teens want to flock to a movie that follows the rise of Julian Assange and his not-at-all-merry band of mega-hackers and “citizen journalists” in WikiLeaks, but an MPAA rating that specifically excludes them without adult chaperones is appalling folly on someone’s part – the filmmakers perhaps for not making the necessary deal in advance and, for sure, the MPAA for being utterly blockheaded about the kind of movie that requires extra care for teen audiences.

To say the obvious: If I had a teen at home, I’d be delighted to have him or her go to “The Fifth Estate” without a chaperone. It’s a PG-13 film to me, all the way.

The movie is a good journalistic thriller. I don’t know that gifted director Condon (“Kinsey,” “Gods and Monsters”) could possibly have done more to put visual pizzazz into a movie which is, essentially, about hackers, info-geeks and computer systems. His hand-held cameras move feverishly around the actors, his edits are smooth but just as constant and his analogical visualizations – the cinematic equivalent of poetic metaphors – are hugely ingenious. (The hero envisions WikiLeaks to be a huge modern office full of desks, with Assange sitting at every desk.)

It’s the script by Josh Singer that, frankly, confirms Assange’s rejection of the whole project in advance from the minute he heard about it. Singer isn’t dumb, by any means. There’s no way a writer could even attempt a movie like this without cleverness and insight about the revolutionary digital world we’re all trying to get used to.

Here is a movie that quotes Solzhenitsyn saying, “No one can buy the road to truth,” a movie that has enough aphoristic panache to observe that “people are loyal until it seems opportune not to be” and “if you’re going to nail yourself to a cross, you should know what it’s made of.”

On the most basic turn-of-phrase level, the writing has some sheen. But that’s all. This is otherwise a movie that screamed at the top of its lungs for the kind of apocalyptic hellfire that Paddy Chayefsky put into the script of “Network.”

That’s because what is happening in the world of information is an ongoing apocalypse. And it’s happening right now. The cybernetic and digital world is in the process of remaking everything we know and not slowly and deliberately and carefully either. It’s happening at lightning speed with a brutal lack of precision and higher concern.

And that’s what “The Fifth Estate” tries to be about but can’t. Because it’s a movie – and it’s based on a book Assange dislikes written by a man he hates – it reduces itself to the kind of lesser personal issue that a movie can handle, i.e. just how big a deluded megalomaniac is Assange anyway?

It makes for a very watchable movie as we see Benedict Cumberbatch give a good performance as Assange, a zealot who believes that all information exists only to be known; that “courage is contagious”; and that all governments and institutions should be transparent while all whistleblowers should be protected, anonymous and secret.

He attracts to WikiLeaks an invaluable partner played by Daniel Bruhl (of “Rush”). That partner is the man Assange now dislikes and whose book (on which the movie is based) he discredits. His real name is Daniel Domscheit-Berg, but throughout the film he calls himself Daniel Schmitt.

The essential Assange/Schmitt disagreement as they declassify more and more classified information all over the globe and attain more and more power is this: To Utopian Assange, all information needs to be free and open; to Schmitt it needs editing with an ever-present eye to assaying the consequences of free exposure. They collide thunderously when American Pfc. Bradley Manning sends WikiLeaks a gigantic motherlode of classified Defense Department information – including the names of secret American operatives abroad – and the world’s greatest newspapers (the Guardian, the New York Times) have to figure out how to handle it all.

The inherent drama here couldn’t possibly be larger, but it’s a drama of ideas – the very nature of information itself and what free societies do with it. When it all devolves into whether or not Assange dyes his hair white and why and whether or not he really did sexually assault two Swedish women, the movie has done a disservice to both its larger subject and its audience. It evades completely the “utopia/dystopia” problem.

Information is liquid. We know that it takes the shape of its container but we’re discovering that it’s oceanic in the raw. What we’re figuring out is how to create intelligent new containers that serve us rather than unleash oceanic tsunamis to drown us.

We’re in a wonderful period full of movies about the real world. Sadly, for all its brisk watchability, “The Fifth Estate” is a distinctly lesser one.


The Fifth Estate

3 stars

Starring: Benedick Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Alicia Vikander, Laura Linney, David Thewlis and Anthony Mackie

Director: Bill Condon

Running Time: 128 minutes

Rating: R for language and some violence

The Lowdown: Julian Assange and his mega-hacking allies re-define the world of “citizen journalism” and scare the daylights out of governments and institutions the world over.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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