Film Review: Acting Provides Most of ‘The Fifth Estate’ Thrills

Fifth Estate 5There’s been so much spin around The Fifth Estate that it’s easy to lose the movie in all the back and forth between filmmakers and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. WikiLeaks even posted what it called a “mature” version of the script and a rebuttal that among other things takes the film to task for suggesting that Assange colors his hair – egad!

In a featurette for the film director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Gods and Monsters) stresses that Fifth Estate “is not a documentary…That’s not what we’re doing. We’re presenting the bigger issues…” though much of the film’s hero-or-traitor marketing (a little confusing since the Australian Assange is not a US citizen – traitor to the West, perhaps?) has more than a get-the-behind-scenes-story feel to it. It’s not the first time a film studio has wanted it both ways when presenting a fictionalized account of actual people and events, but it’s fair to say DreamWorks doesn’t mind having it both ways on this one.

Fifth Estate 1So what about the film itself? It’s actually at times a gripping thriller for our Internet age, though perhaps not so much because of the story it tells. The actors, particularly Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) as Assange and Daniel Brühl (Inglorious Basterds, Good Bye Lenin!) as his – according to the movie but not according to WikiLeaks – right-hand man Daniel Domscheit-Berg, provide the zing to this flick with their well-crafted performances.

Domscheit-Berg joined WikiLeaks in 2007. In the movie he’s initially little more than an adoring puppy dog around Assange, drawn to the truth-through-information ideals Assange pontificates on at every opportunity. But as Assange enters into partnership with publications Der Spiegel, The Guardian and The New York Times to publish sensitive military and diplomatic cables, the disciple becomes greatly concerned about his master’s intent to put that information out with redacting the names of operatives around the world. After all, couldn’t that lead to the deaths of many? For Assange, though, more lives will ultimately be saved by shining a light on what he feels are great wrongs.

Fifth Estate 3There are points when the storyline is quite thrilling (and even chilling) – an expose of a corrupt Swiss bank and of political death squads in Kenya as well as video of the killings of reporters and other civilians in Afghanistan are the prime examples. There’s an attempt to show how WikiLeaks works that’s overdone but at least serves to offer visualization for those who might be confused about its modus operandi. But there’s also plenty of psychobabble going on about Assange and his origins as a child living in a cult and as a hacker with the handle of “Mendax.”  I’m not the first reviewer to note (and I doubt I’ll be the last) that much of The Fifth Estate feels like The Social Network – Domscheit-Berg is to Assange as Eduardo Saverin was to Mark Zuckerberg in that film.

The saving grace of this flick is that Condon assembled actors who could give good performances reading ingredients off a soup can. Cumberbatch is riveting to watch, and Brühl makes us root for his character from the beginning – after all, haven’t we all, at least from afar, had the experience of hero-worshipping someone and then being disillusioned after they reminded us of their human frailties? David Thewlis as a Guardian reporter who comes to regret his promotion of Assange is superb, as is Alicia Vikander as Domscheit-Berg’s taken-for-granted girlfriend. And though their characters as written are pretty standard fare Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney unsurprisingly elevate the material.

Fifth Estate 4Perhaps the film will get audience members to think about the issues WikiLeaks raises and do some thinking and probing on their own in search of answers – good. But aside from the gripping performances The Fifth Estate has only momentary thrills and breaks little new ground.

The Fifth Estate ( opens nationally today (Oct. 18). For locations and show times in the Nashville area check the websites of Regal Cinemas ( and Carmike Cinemas ( Rated R for language and some violence, 128 min. Directed by Bill Condon; written by Josh Singer, based on the books “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website” by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and “WikiLeaks” by David Leigh and Luke Harding. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, David Thewlis, Moritz Bleibtreu, Carice Van Houten, Alicia Vikander, Peter Capaldi , Dan Stevens, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney and Anthony Mackie.





*Photos by Frank Conner courtesy DreamWorks Pictures SKG.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (