Movie Review - "The Fifth Estate"

Tonight I attended a screening of The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

If you didn't know, this is "the Wikileaks movie", chronicling the founding of the organization and the numerous leaks of information the organization orchestrated. The synopsis:

Follows Daniel Domscheit-Berg, an early supporter and eventual colleague of Julian Assange, and traces the heady, early days of WikiLeaks, culminating in the release of a series of controversial and history changing information leaks. The website’s overnight success brought instant fame to its principal architects and transformed the flow of information to news media and the world at large.

From the early trailers I was anticipating this movie. It looked like it would be a good visual and dramatic telling of the founding of Wikileaks. I was excited that I scored passes to check it out.

I'm going to give you my thoughts on the movie, but also my screening experience in the theater.

The film begins with a montage of the way humans have communicated information from the beginning of time - cavemen painting on walls, to hieroglyphics to calligraphy to the printing press to newspapers to radio to tv to the Internet. After the montage we see it's 2010 and Wikileaks has made their huge release of US classified material from Afghanistan & Julian Assange is giving a press conference. With that setup, the film then travels back to the beginning of Wikileaks. It feels as if the story is told through the eyes of Daniel, the first (and for a long time only) volunteer with Assange when he started. This is probably intentional, as the film source material is Daniel's book which was published in 2011. Daniel is committed to the Wikileaks cause & he "drinks the Kool-aid" that Assange feeds him on the cause. As they publish information and get more press, Daniel begins to see that Assange's motivations weren't the ones he professes. Things come to a head when Wikileaks works with 3 major papers to break the story of their release of classified US documents and diplomatic cables.

This film was...interesting. From the beginning it was clear that the writers decided to go with a classic "good guy vs bad guy" story, with Daniel being the good guy & Julian being the bad guy. Throughout the film Daniel is held up to be this model of goodness, motivated solely by a desire to take down corruption & share information. This is contrasted by the portrayal of Julian, who is shown to be an attention whore who uses Wikileaks to get the fame & admiration he always wanted. The film gives us glimpses into just how damaged Julian is - this is most apparent when Julian lashes out at Daniel's parents because he feels inadequate about his lack of a stable childhood. Several times in the film Julian comes across as arrogant, deeply needy, and manipulative.

Visually what I enjoyed most of this film was the interesting way in which they showed the coding environment and operating system for Wikileaks. Also, it was very striking to me how much Benedict Cumberbatch looks like Julian Assange. But as the film went on...this is going to sound horrible, but I kept looking at Cumberbatch's face & thinking that something was just off about it, you know?

Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney and Anthony Mackie all have small roles as US government officials who try to manage through the Wikileaks release of the classified documents and diplomatic cables. Given how small their roles are, each did a good job. I would have rather seen more of the response of the US government to Wikileaks, instead of the plot line involving a Libyan informant that was a friend of Laura Linney. It seemed like an unnecessary plot point. There was also a short sex scene involving Daniel and his girlfriend that also felt unnecessary - my first thought was "really? what does this have to do with this film?"

I can't tell you why, but this film seemed to drag. There were several times during the film that I wondered how much longer we had to go and what time it was...though I couldn't check the time because I was sans cell phone. Which leads me to my critique of the screening itself.

I've attended dozens of screenings over the years, at a variety of locations. Today was a new experience for me and not a good one. While waiting in line for the screening to begin, a security guard came by and announced that no electronic devices would be allowed in the theater. We could either leave them in our cars or check them with security. He also informed us that if we chose to bring in a bag, it would be thoroughly searched.

Excuse me? You want to do what with my personal property?

In the dozens of screenings I've attended, I've NEVER heard of such a request. I get it - they want to prevent piracy and the unauthorized leak of footage from the film. But why not have security in the theater and remove anyone who is caught using an electronic device in any capacity? In ever screening I've been in, I've seen people comply with the request to turn off all electronic equipment & keep it put away during the film. Physically taking away a person's device feels like everyone in that theater was accused of being a bootlegger, and I don't like being accused or even the implication of an accusation. Leaving my phone with my personal information in the hands of a security guard making minimum wage is not what I'm about to do. I'm also not going to let said minimum wage making security guard go through my private property, my bag. Nope, not going to do it. I've NEVER seen this done at a theater, except the theater I was at tonight, which the AMC Southdale in Edina, MN. I've gone to screenings all over the Twin Cities as well as when I lived in Orlando, and until tonight I'd never experienced someone asking me to hand over my phone while I attended a screening.

So I walked into the theater with my wallet and my book, since I had no other way of entertaining myself while waiting for the film to begin. Before I walked in, I was also waved with a metal detector, I guess to make sure I wasn't trying to smuggle in a phone or other recording device. REALLY AMC Southdale? Is all this fake security really necessary? I think not.

And I forgot to mention - the theater was only 25% full. For a FREE screening. I'm used to crazy long lines and every seat in the theater filled. Clearly someone dropped the ball on promoting this screening...or people don't want to put up with the intrusive antics at the AMC Southdale in Edina, MN. I know I won't be attending any other screenings at that theater, I may not even frequent that theater as a paying guest anymore. I'm completely turned off by the way that they treated their guests. I'm also disappointed in the studio (Dreamworks) and the company who organized the screening, 43Kix.

So in review, I had a bad screening experience to sit through a 2 hour movie that dragged. I have no idea how closely the film stuck to actual events or how much was embellished, but it was very clear that this film is told from the perspective of Daniel & isn't an unbiased account of the founding of Wikileaks. I could have sat on my couch instead and watching Thursday night football. Save your money, maybe grab it from Redbox & spend $1.20 on it instead.