, Port Arthur, Texas

October 18, 2013

“The Fifth Estate” never quite succeeds

Sean McBride
The Port Arthur News

— The Fifth Estate”

Buena Vista

Directed by Bill Condon

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, David Thewlis, Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci

Rated R

2 Stars       


Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is a very polarizing figure. He’s seen as a freedom fighter in some quarters, while others label him as a narcissist or even a threat to national security. Those differing viewpoints create an intriguing starting point for “The Fifth Estate,” the new movie that chronicles the life of this enigmatic man.

This is a messy, somewhat rudderless movie that never really succeeds because it never really gets under Assange’s skin. We do get the major highlights of his life. We watch as Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) uses anonymous sources and the internet to shine a light on Kenyan death squads, corrupt bankers and British Neo-Nazis. He comes across as a charismatic crusader for the underdog in those early days, which explains why so many were eager to sign up for his cause.

As we delve deeper into the movie, a different picture of Assange starts to emerge. He is portrayed as a self-important charlatan who is contemptuous of mainstream journalism and anybody who tries to stop Wikileaks. The filmmakers do try to show both  of Assange's good and bad sides, which is laudable in theory, but that wavering point of view makes for a pretty milquetoast biopic. That’s especially true of the half-hearted backstory that seeks to explain away Assange's behavior with formative childhood experiences. I don't know if any of it is true, but either way, it rings false within this movie.

“The Fifth Estate” does get credit for some pretty good acting. Cumberbatch plays Assange as a brilliant and charismatic social engineer who’s nevertheless naïve about the world and more than a bit of a huckster. It's a fascinating, nuanced portrayal.

I find it curious that the real-life Assange asked Cumberbatch not to take this role. He's gone on record saying that the movie is something of a hatchet job, but I wonder if the man who is so obsessed with transparency isn't also afraid that public perception will change if he's shown in a warts-and-all biopic.

"The Fifth Estate" poses some interesting questions about the future of journalism and how the internet has genuinely changed our world. Thoughtful audiences will appreciate the meaty questions that underpin the story, but on a purely visceral level, it's hard to get involved with what's going on within the movie. Assange continues to be a mystery. I realize that it's foolish to expect that a man's life fit into tidy little boxes of right and wrong, but I expected to come away from "The Fifth Estate" with much stronger feelings about Julian Assange. Instead, I'm only impressed by the actor, and not the man he was portraying.


Movie reviews by Sean, “The Movie Guy,” are published bi-weekly in “The Port Arthur News” and seen weekly on KFDM-TV and KBOI 2-TV. Sean welcomes your comments via email at