Friday, October 18, 2013

Ironic Review: Heir of Fifth Estate Won't Pay Much Tax

Marking the first Ironic Review for The Author's Files...

There are few people in the present day who can testify to building a more polarizing reputation than Julian Assange, whom some will admire as a paragon of the Constitution and a Robin Hood-like rebel and others will despise as an arrogant, unlawful, lazy leftist and a Robin Hood-like rebel.  Whatever opinions one holds about Assange’s personal productivity, there can be no dispute that Benedict Cumberbatch is a very busy individual by actors’ standards, having traced a broad career spanning theater, film, and television and touching everything from Shakespeare to Sherlock to Star Trek to motion-capture in The Hobbit of all things, mostly to commendable results.  Unfortunately, as the first of at least four movies he appears in this Fall-December cycle, The Fifth Estate will be one of the least satisfying and, like its protagonist, most polarizing projects on which Cumberbatch has worked.  Although he has previously demonstrated an aptitude for portraying complex, multi-layered characters, he is nonetheless bound by the same article that guides and influences all actors, namely the script, which can be either a blessing or a curse, in this case the latter.  The Fifth Estate boldly invites controversy by the very nature of its subject matter, but fails to give a genuinely nuanced or thought-provoking take on the real people and events that inspired it.

Conceived from a script by Josh Singer, a veteran of the great political propagandrama “The West Wing”, that was itself based on two books I won’t bother myself to read and directed by Bill Condon of “Twilight: Breaking Dawn” in-fame, The Fifth Estate follows a haphazard outline that jumps around to various points in Assange’s lifetime but dwells predominantly on the years 2007 to 2010, during which he raised his creation Wikileaks into an independent news giant on the web that eventually drew headlines when it exposed numerous classified documents mostly relating to the U.S. military.  Assange sees himself as a warrior for government transparency and an informed populace, arguing that freedom of the press and the unrestricted flow of information trump laws enacted by Congress to safeguard details concerning the Armed Forces’ operations and to protect citizens from dubious terrorist threats.  “This is information the world needs to know,” he drawls.   Other players in this high-stakes, ADD-afflicted story of secrets and internet sabotage include Assange’s German partner in crime Daniel Domscheit-Berg, which is actually the real name of a real person who wrote a book about his once colleague, a couple of other forgettable hackers, and two State Department officials played by Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci, a.k.a. Caesar Flickerman in a marginally better movie.  While many of the supporting cast members have shown a distinctive pedigree in the past, their characters here are painfully underdeveloped and overshadowed by Cumberbatch’s enigmatic, convicted, and ever dangerous Assange.

Cumberbatch’s portrayal of possibly the world’s most famous leaker is one of the few things that saves the movie from total failure, giving audiences a portal into the mind of an elusive and little understood man who keeps his own secrets close but has no qualms about stealing and disclosing those of his enemies.  By little fault of his own, though, the depiction of Assange is also the most disappointing element of The Fifth Estate, as the filmmakers can’t really decide on a consistent portrayal of his character.  On the one hand it makes him out to be both a principled freedom-fighter and an ingenious technological innovater, yet on the other it emphatically suggests that he’s a mentally unstable and constantly paranoid maniac with an irrational distrust of public authority figures.  Nor does the movie have a clear and composed outlook on the expediency of the leaks themselves.  Rabid isolationist that he is, Assange insists that the U.S. government’s silence on reckless and indiscriminate warfare endangers civilians in foreign countries, but the movie simultaneously counters this claim with the security freak’s argument that secrecy is necessary to protecting American lives from unidentified terrorists who would exploit every hole they perceive in the nation’s surveillance state.  Neither side comes out on top by the credits roll, and so the viewer is left with a jumbled mess of political ideologies and themes that are roughly equal in their merits based on the script’s analysis.

Even if Universal Pictures had entrusted The Fifth Estate to a competent director and writer, the movie would still likely be doomed from the start, merely because Julian Assange isn’t all that interesting a figure, either as a person or as a political icon.  A fugitive of several countries who’s ever wandering, looking for embarrassing videos of soldiers defiling corpses, and having sex with various strangers, sometimes for longer than they consent to (although the movie doesn’t so much as probe these accusations [terrible double entendre intended]), he’s the kind of pathetic lifeform you might expect to find in the swamplands of an alien planet: a wretched, self-inflated, morally destitute, and rather worthless addition to human race.  None of the ‘secrets’ he has stolen thus far have been especially eye-opening or infuriating, and the movie largely reflects his life’s dearth of lasting achievements.  In comparison to Julian Assange, NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden would make a far more compelling basis for a biopic, not only because his history is more intriguing and philosophy more defined, but also because his leaks were so much more horrifying in their gravity.  The Wikileaks founder obsesses over tax evaders and malfeasant U.S. soldiers, while the renegade in Russia single-handedly exposed not one but several undeclared and sweeping programs that continually enable executive agencies to spy on Americans without warrant in a blatant violation of the 4th amendment.  Assange is just a revolutionary-lite when examined in the big picture, concerned not so much with unmasking widespread government corruption as with igniting momentary outrage against what he sees as American imperialism.  If he were to write for a mainstream newspaper, he would probably sign onto USA Today or Time Magazine first, two papers whose diction is roughly equivalent to this movie’s dialogue.

The Fifth Estate is a mildly engrossing, if clumsily edited story as far as biographical dramas come, but it apes Wikileaks’ own reporting by leaving the audience with one burning question: “Is this a story that needed to be told?”  Such is my reaction whenever I read about a new leak from Assange, and such was my reaction when I left the theater…

Grade rating: ?

… That is, if I had actually went to the theater and paid good money to see this piece of junk.  HA!  I’m waiting for the rest of the film to pop up on Wikileaks just as the official screenplay did a few weeks ago.  In other words, this whole review was fake, just like all the events retold in this film that alleges to be based on a true story.  Quoth the Sheldon J. Plankton: Psycheth!  Irony, right?  Whether this commentary is any faker than that of critics who really sat through the movie and still got the completely wrong idea is a whole other debate, one that’s probably worth having.

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