To give you an idea of what you're in for if you do masochistically decide to watch this movie: it includes an actual scene where ~hacker code~ is projected across Benedict Cumberbatch's face while he types. JUST LIKE A CYBERPUNK MOVIE FROM 15 YEARS AGO. For real. If you were to ask me, What's the worst possible cliche you could include in a supposedly-serious movie about hackers? I'd answer immediately: code being projected across someone's face while they type. For those of you who have managed to miss out on this classic ~cyber~ movie detail, it was used during the hacking scene in Jurassic Park. Which came out in 1993. Not only this, but there's also at least one scene where Assange and Daniel Berg communicate via chat, while on opposite sides of the same table, and you see the chat scrolling across the screen and spoken in a voiceover at the same time. Needless to say, the chat is full of perfect grammar and punctuation, which as we all know is exactly how people communicate on the internet.
I'm not going to go into whether Benedict Cumberbatch managed a "realistic" portrayal of Julian Assange, because I generally think that there's more to biopic acting than just doing a super-accurate impersonation. Let's just say that Cumberbatch's performance was one of the only good aspects of the movie, and that the interpretation of Assange as an egotistical liar felt pretty accurate. It was the other characters that were the problem.
Most decent biopics fall into one of two categories: entertainingly fictionalised, or slavishly well-researched. The Fifth Estate had the potential to be a political thriller or a serious character study of Julian Assange, but it fell somewhere in between and ended up being neither. The dialogue was cheesy as hell, but the events themselves seemed relatively accurate, along with pointless but noticeable details like Assange's clothes and Domscheit-Berg's laptop. The worst result of this clash between ~realism and entertainment was the enormous cast of accomplished character-actors, who were all disastrously underutilised. You ended up sitting through a seemingly never-ending stream of "hey it's that guy!" scenes, but instead of seeing any actual characterisation or drama, it would just be Anthony Mackie and Peter Capaldi and David Thewlis reciting godawful TV-movie dialogue to each other yet again. There is literally a scene where Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney (both US government officials) have this painfully embarrassing exchange:
Laura Linney: These computer geeks are more dangerous than we ever could have predicted, Jim.
Stanley Tucci: Welcome to the revolution!Yes, they really did use the phrase "computer geeks".
Worse still is the depiction of women. I don't have any particular problem with fictionalising real people to make a biopic more interesting, which is just as well because The Fifth Estate was clearly fictionalising a lot. There is no way those characters could be that boring and cliched in real life. Unfortunately, the filmmakers were fictionalising for all the wrong reasons, particularly when it came to female characters. Laura Linney was OK, but every other woman in the film was like some godawful 1950s stereotype, from nagging girlfriends to background secretaries to worried to mothers to the gaggles of interchangeable one-line Assange groupies. Meanwhile, there were about a million scenes where groups of white men stood around exchanging portentious dialogue about Hacking or whatevs. Noooope.
Daniel Berg's girlfriend ended up with the worst depiction of all, reduced to a friendly office girl who (inexplicably) falls for him and then spends the rest of the movie either lying in bed waiting for a sex scene, or nagging him about how dinner's getting cold. Literally nagging him about how dinner is getting cold. If you google this woman IRL, her Twitter bio reads: "Open Government, freedom + transparency activist, chairwoman Pirate Party Brandenburg, Eastern Germany-socialized feminist." I know Julian Assange had a hissy-fit about this movie being a hatchet job, but TBH I think this woman has way more to complain about.
For the rest of the agony, I'm just gonna give you a bullet-point list. This movie includes such a rich and diverse array of shittiness that I can't face going into any more detail.
- At least 70% of the dialogue was expository.
- ... including multiple scenes where characters read newspaper articles or websites out loud to each other.
- Seemingly unintentional allusions to dated cyberpunk movie tropes, ie secreal scenes in a Berlin squatter club full of punks and hippies, prseumably to give the illusion that hackers are, like, so cool, man.
- Were they trying to make the "hacker conference" scenes look cool? Or were they making fun of hacker conferences for trying to look cool? I genuinely could not tell.
- Constant jump-cuts to new locations, with the city name scrawled across the screen in vaguely ~computery~ typeface.
- The only excuse for this many montages is if you're including a teen-movie-style makeover scene. Unfortunately, that never happened.
- A scene where Cumberbatch was forced to deliver dialogue that sounded exactly like something from Sherlock. ie, "What must it be like to think like these boring, pedestrian idiots?" etc. One of the many, many times we started laughing out loud in the cinema. TERRIBLE.
- They completely failed to point out the irony of Assange's obsession with covering up his personal life/the inner workings of Wikileaks. Considering the fact that the movie was colossally unsubtle in every other area, I'm gonna go ahead and assume that they just... didn't bother with this really obvious angle??
- Noticeably terrible cinematography that coincidentally means you can't drink to dull the pain of the rest of the movie, because you'll just end up nauseated.
P.S. In the interests of balance, there was one non-terrible aspect to this film: Alexander Siddig. The only character I actually cared about, partly because he was played by Alexander Siddig and partly because his story was more human than anyone else's. If The Fifth Estate had included more scenes where Laura Linney helped Alexander Siddig flee across the Egyptian border and fewer scenes where people stood around explaining what Wikileaks was, then it would've been significantly less unbearable to watch.
P.P.S. I expect this movie was meant to be thought-provoking, but the main question I find myself asking is: Does Julian Assange really dye his hair?