19 October 2013

Debating delights: Are we The Fifth Estate? (review)

How much should we know? Is there a line between transparency and privacy? Can there be too much information?

Fifth Estate poster in the London Underground
The opening titles to the film The Fifth Estate take the viewer through the evolution of communication. It begins with stone and a tool and takes us through all forms of communication from the written letter, printed page, telegraph, a typewriter,  wireless radio, television, computers, the internet and everything else in between.  This was a title sequence I wasn't expecting and for a moment I thought I was in the wrong screening room until I saw the name I was expecting to see...in all honesty, the initial reason I went to see the film was because one of the main characters, website founder Julian Assange, was being interpreted by Benedict Cumberbatch, and in any other circumstance this reason alone would be a good enough reason for me to see something.  However, coming to that decision for this film was something in itself.  In the end, I was glad that I made the one I did.

The media frenzy that surrounded the release, and indeed making, of the film is no surprise.  It is timely.  It depicts a story of real people who made a significant change to our society. And, it is a story that continues.

I had seen the stories on the news and heard about information that whistleblowers provided to the website, Wikileaks; however, those things can seem a world away from an average Jane, like me.  We are all consumed by our own world: our work, our family, our friends, our interests, our problems.  Therefore, the in and outs of this phenomena were foreign to me, so before rushing out to see a movie with one of my favourite actors I took a few steps that I normally wouldn't before seeing a film.

First, I read and paid attention to reviews.  Those I read seemed to be saying the same thing: brilliant acting  by Cumberbatch (I already expected that), but a weak script and overall story.  Hmmm, I thought, a story is very important to me maybe it won't be worth it.  However, as interviews began making their way to the press, it was clear one of the main characters in the story itself, Assange, was against the film and had communicated this to the actor about to portray him. This also made me stop and think...why would one of the main figures be against the story?  Again, listening to both sides made the difference.  As much as the argument against the movie was convincing, Cumberbatch's response and reason for doing it was just as intriguing and viable argument, in my mind.  So, with mixed reviews from critics and two opposing thoughts from the man and his portrayer, I went to see it.

Many reviews have compared The Fifth Estate, for better or worse, to The Social Network. Having not seen that movie, I cannot make that comparison.  The stories, in general, appear to be similar so I can see where the comparison comes to play, but I can't comment directly.  The Fifth Estate is a visually impressive film.  The use of colour and lightening makes it a really pretty film. This combined with the quick-paced editing, text popping up on the screen (a la BBC Sherlock to me), and an equally fast paced, thumping, memorable soundtrack makes for an enjoyable movie-going experience.  As mentioned, the performances from all players is perhaps the strongest part of the film. Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl give commanding performances in the role of the two major characters.  Even smaller roles such as Guardian journalists played by Dan Stevens (of Downton Abbey fame), Peter Capaldi (best known for The Thick of It and soon taking the role of the 12th Doctor Who), and David Thewlis (Harry Potter's Professor Lupin) make brief, but memorable contributions.  But, yes, the story itself felt disjointed and lumpy. Even though the lovely on-screen text continually shows the viewer where they are in the world--from London to Africa to Berlin and Liege--the story brings in bits of other pieces such as Manning and US government officials, but leaves the viewer hanging...perhaps because these pieces are still unfinished...as is the whole story.  

In the end, The Fifth Estate is a film--a story from one particular perspective and interpreted by actors. It is not a documentary about Wikileaks.  It isn't a biopic about Julian Assange.  These are important factors to keep in mind.  I didn't go into it expecting to learn all there was about Wikileaks or its founder.  I went to see a film with excellent actors, commenting on a timely and important subject in our society: that is what I got. It is a film worth seeing, but you have to know what you want to get from it because it can go both ways--much like many of the important issues in our society.  I certainly got me thinking...

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