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The Fifth Estate (2013)

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 1/28/2014

All Ratings out of




Review by Mike Long, Posted on 1/28/2014

I recently stated that most biographies and/or docudramas are made decades, sometimes centuries after the real-life person lived or the event occurred. I followed this up by saying that movies which focus on more recent events are usually the kind of fodder for cable TV. However, several recent films have proven me wrong on this. Fruitvale Station and Captain Phillips were both released last year and focus on events which took place five or less years before. So, Hollywood is obviously embracing movies which are "ripped from the headlines". The latest movie to join this list is The Fifth Estate. After seeing these movies, I've learned that a fresh topic does not guarantee a good movie.

The Fifth Estate opens in 2007, when a computer programmer and journalist named Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) meets an internet blogger and hacker named Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) at a computer activist event Berlin. Assange has created a website called WikiLeaks and he wants to work with Daniel. Assange envisions the site as a platform where those who have sensitive information about governments or corporations can anonymously disseminate the documents which they have. Daniel is excited about this idea, although he clearly finds the globe-trotting, white-haired Assange to be eccentric. The first major posting by WikiLeaks exposes unethical practices in a large European bank. From there, the site begins to grow in popularity, garnering attention from other media outlets and governments around the world. When Assange takes possession of documents which expose errors in the U.S. battle plan in Afghanistan and Iraq, WikiLeaks comes under the kind of scrutiny which could shut it down.

As The Fifth Estate so astutely points out, we are living in a world where information is a very powerful tool and it travels around the world instantaneously. Thus, the challenge facing any filmmaker who is tacking a movie based on a recent event is that said event was most likely covered in the media and the viewer may already have knowledge of it -- perhaps a great deal of knowledge. Thus, these films must offer us something different. In a perfect world, they would take us much deeper into the story, giving us intimate details about the players and the situations. The Fifth Estate is the perfect film for something like this. I would venture to guess that most people were like me. I've heard of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, as I've seen him on the news. I heard the stories about the massive leaks of military information and scrutiny Assange was under. Yet, I knew nothing about the origins of the website or the man himself.

After seeing The Fifth Estate, I really can't say that I know much more than I did, and that is just one of the film's many issues. The movie wants to profile Assange, Berg, and WikiLeaks, while also being a thriller, but it fails on both fronts. The story begins in 2010 when Assange is about to leaks thousands of pages of diplomatic exchanges, but then jumps back to 2007 when Assange and Berg meet. At this point in time, Assange has already created the website, so his backstory goes out the window and we learn very little about him as the film progresses. (I wasn't aware that he's Australian, so there's that.) Throughout the film, I truly felt like an outsider looking in, as Assange's motives are never thoroughly explained (beyond the fact that he feels that certain information should be made public) and both Assange and Berg are very underwritten. The two of them are always doing something, but because the story always remains on the surface, it's very difficult to get invested in what is happening. The bulk of the story takes place from Berg's point-of-view, so Assange always feels very distant, and when he and Berg disagree, it's hard to tell exactly what Assange is thinking.

The movie doesn't succeed as a thriller either. In fact, most of the movie is incredibly boring. Even if I didn't know some of the real-life story, and thus, some of the outcomes, I still wouldn't have found the film suspenseful. The movie attempts to create tension in scenes where WikiLeaks is in a position where it may not be able to post something, or the site is in danger of being shut-down, but the viewer is left feeling nothing. Why? Besides the fact that it would damage Assange's ego, we never get a clear sense of what would occur if the worst happened. I think that most people want to see corruption exposed, and thus, we want to see Assange meet his goal, but the way things are presented here, the viewer wouldn't have lost any sleep if the site failed.

The Fifth Estate comes from Oscar-winning Writer and Director Bill Condon, who has certainly been involved in some good movies, so it's very surprising to see him stumble here. To his credit, he has created some very imaginative visuals to represent Assange's explanation of WikiLeaks infrastructure, but beyond that, he has done very little to make this film interesting. Cumberbatch certainly throws himself into the role of Asssange, and he's good, but we never get a glance beneath that white hair and driven demeanor. The Fifth Estate has the distinction of having the lowest weekend box-office of a wide-release film in 2013. Clearly the topic didn't grab viewers and even if it had opened big, word-of-mouth would have killed it. If you want to see an interesting version of the WikiLeaks, then check out Season Five of Damages, which takes Assange's story, warts and all, and does a great dramatization of it.

The Fifth Estate shows that IMing doesn't make a story "pop" on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 32 Mbps. The image is sharp and clear, showing no distinct grain and no defects from the source materials. The colors look good, and there are some nice reds and blues here, and the image is never overly dark or bright, despite the fact that this is a dark movie. The image shows a very nice level of detail, which is evident in the close-ups. The depth looks good as well. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.5 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. A nightclub sequence offers music which excites the subwoofer. The stereo and surround sound effects are notably good in the aforementioned imaginative sequences. The mix takes advantage of this and goes out of its way to emphasize the circling camera.

The Fifth Estate Blu-ray Disc contains only a few extras. "The Submission Platform: Visual Effects" (10 minutes) shows us how the scenes involving the imaginary office were done utilizing a practical set and green screen. We go on-set to see how this was done and hear from Condon as to how the idea grew. "In-Camera: Graphics" (6 minutes) shows how simple projectors were used to create on-screen words, as well as how the images on the computers were actually there, as opposed to visual effects. "Scoring Secrets" (9 minutes) profiles composer Carter Burwell. We see him at work in the studio and hear his thoughts on how he approached creating the music for the film. The extras are rounded out by the THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film, as well as seven TV SPOTS.

Review Copyright 2014 by Mike Long