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Toronto 2013: The Fifth Estate

Posted on Friday September 6, 2013, 15:38 by Damon Wise in Words From The Wise
Toronto 2013: The Fifth Estate

Julian Assange, cooped up in the Ecuadorian Embassy, already feels like yesterday’s news, upstaged by Edward Snowden and his flight to Hong Kong, never mind Bradley Manning and his post-lock-up gender reassignment plans. And so does the opening night film of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival; called The Fifth Estate, it is a turgid political drama with very little politics or drama. It’s the sort of film where the characters try to drum up some excitement by exclaiming what’s happening in a quivering state of excitement, hoping that maybe they can make a silk purse out of what is effectively a film about some people seeing some emails they weren’t supposed to see (there is no physical macguffin).
One could argue that The Social Network didn’t have much fibre either, but that film really IS All The President’s Men compared to this. It begins with a montage of ancient writing techniques, before zipping into a clichéd voyage into the future, with lots of computer screens, lots of ticker-tape coding and lots and lots of clacking. Carte Burwell’s score starts as it means to go on; unusually for this master of the leitmotiv, this is all bombast, never underscoring the drama but, if anything, drawing attention away from it by being so bloody loud.
The story itself is the dinner-party version of Julian Assange’s story, how he came to found the controversial website Wikileaks, liaise with The Guardian newspaper and finally “betray” them (the film has it both ways) as his ego got ever more out of control. It stops short of the Swedish rape allegations (which, in itself, almost negates the film entirely). Instead, director Bill Condon tries to inject life into a dead duck in much the same way as Sir Ian McKellern tried to resuscitate the DOA Da Vinci Code: lots of BIG gestures to distract from the script’s drab, self-important tale of the much as we expected.
There is, of course, a film to be made about Assange, and two already have – Alex Gibney’s doc We Steal Secrets and Robert Connolly’s excellent origins story Underground, both of which are way better than this. In its defence, one can point to very good performances by Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange and Daniel Bruhl as his right-hand man Daniel Berg, but for a two-hour movie this is not enough recompense for the genuinely interesting ideas that go whooshing past while everybody dwells on the fact that Assange is all about exposing state secrets while – wow, did you know this? – claiming a right to privacy for himself.
It doesn’t even get the Guardian’s offices right. But that really is the very least of its problems.

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