Julian Assange biopic tries, fails to exploit his infamy

By Jeff Ihaza / Senior Staff Writer

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“The Fifth Estate”

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl

Directed by: Bill Condon

Grade: D

Perhaps the shining achievement of Wikileaks was releasing a leak preventing people from seeing a decidedly awful movie about Wikileaks. 

“The Fifth Estate,” the latest film from Razzie Award winner Bill Condon, attempts to market the story of Julian Assange and Wikileaks in a package as maddeningly simple as an infographic attempting to explain string theory. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Assange suffers the same cosmetic folly as Leonardo DiCaprio’s role as J. Edgar Hoover in 2011’s “J. Edgar” but without the performance to back it up. 

Overdramatic delivery and high-school-theater-style makeup design make for a performance akin to an SNL parody of Assange, as opposed to a serious depiction. Combined with the Hallmark-Channel-worthy script (Condon did direct the last Twilight movie), “The Fifth Estate” falls short of the Bourne-esque thriller it wants to be.

Centered on one of Assange’s most publicized leaks, video footage of the July 12, 2007, airstrike that killed two journalists working for Reuters, “The Fifth Estate” doesn’t provide any new information on Wikileaks, nor does it even succeed as entertainment. Even when dramatized on film, “The Fifth Estate” fails to spend any time providing depth to any of Assange’s leaks. Instead, audiences are given a regrettable Australian accent on an archetypical Mark Zuckerberg. Assange’s interaction with whistleblower Chelsea Manning are glossed over in the film, replaced with loud talking and sultry sex scenes that play out like a soap opera.

For cinematic purposes, these are liberties that could be excusable if the plot was driven by some other, equally compelling force. Unfortunately for “The Fifth Estate,” this isn’t the case. We’re supposed to care about the melodrama of nerds arguing about page hits and the inflated ego of Assange, but the flat, inhuman script — a scene where Assange is arguing with another reporter feels like it came out of “Bring it On” — and overall bad acting make even this supposed “inside story” feel bland.

The film predictably follows the documented portions of Assange’s story, beginning in 2010, and uses flashbacks (yes, flashbacks) to detail the information that allegedly got Assange to the point he is today. Sprinkled throughout the film are vignettes of Assange’s childhood, where he was apparently involved in a cult that caused him to dye his hair.

The scenes follow the sort of mythic hero narrative from “The Dark Knight,” seemingly as an attempt to illustrate the larger-than-life nature of the film’s subject. Unfortunately, the only effect of these cliches is a frustrating two hours of overly serious facial expressions and romanticized accounts of CNN headlines.

Yet the biggest mistake this film makes is its bald-faced attempt at banking on the legacy of a decidedly nonprofit institution.

In May of this year, thousands of people took to the streets of Istanbul protesting a range of issues, from the environment to freedom of speech. The nature of these specific protests follows a nuanced framework made possible by the Internet and social media. Unlike Latin American social uprisings in the ’90s, the protests in Turkey — and all over the Arab world — are particularly indebted to shifts in communication that have made their cries for change heard across the globe. Similarly, Assange, the mastermind behind Wikileaks, dramatically tipped the scales of power, exposing unprecedented amounts of government information to the masses most affected by them.

What these real-life movements for social change have in common is that they aren’t pre-packaged for consumption. Understanding the happenings of the Arab Spring takes more than a few CNN spots, and the geopolitical implications of Snowden’s NSA leaks and the continued information sharing of Wikileaks are only beginning to unfold.

The commercialization of perhaps the single most important modern development likely angered plenty involved with the operation. This is probably why Wikileaks leaked the script to the film several months ago, lambasting several of its key points and — most importantly — revealing how simply unwatchable the whole affair is. They should be applauded for such efforts.

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