“The Fifth Estate” roared into the Toronto Film Festival with the varnish of a major Oscar contender. It will leave with the pallor of an also-ran.
The WikiLeaks drama featured a much buzzed-about performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as secrets stealer Julian Assange, and while critics were mostly full of praise for the English actor’s work, they declared the film a muddle.
It is possible, of course, that “The Fifth Estate” will find a warmer reception when it crosses the border back into the United States and as more reviewers weigh in. But the tepid early notices can’t be what producer DreamWorks was hoping for when it decided to unveil the film a month before its domestic release at the festival.
It may have been looking to build momentum up north, but it will have some serious ground to make up now that other films like “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” have been rapturously embraced by the critical community.
In a largely negative review, Eric Kohn of IndieWire groused that director Bill Condon and the film’s screenwriters take a sledgehammer approach to Assange’s story by making the mistake of telling instead of showing his significance.
“Even the occasional stabs at exploring Assange’s curious backstory, including his childhood in an eccentric cult and an estranged teenage offspring, suffer from the bluntness of bullet points,” Kohn wrote. “The movie sometimes works fine on that level by providing a meaty debate on the boundaries of free speech, but the lackluster treatment of Assange’s persona prevents the movie from sublimating its ideas into the main narrative.”
It’s a story without a neat ending, wrote Drew McWeeney. The Hitfix critic said that “The Fifth Estate” suffers from the fact that Assange’s story remains unresolved: After all, he is still holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, trying to avoid extradition. Moreover, he faulted the film for not doing a better job of explaining what made the charismatic leaker leak.
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“I don’t have a problem with the big ideas of the film or with the ambition of how it’s told, but I also don’t feel like this digs deep in the way that narrative drama can,” McWeeney wrote.
Jordan Hoffman on Film.com griped that the film had little to add given that Assange’s decision to publish classified material and subsequent legal issues have been picked over in the press. He also noted that “The Fifth Estate” falls short in the verisimilitude department.
“I will say that the way hacker culture is presented is an absolute joke,” Hoffman wrote. “‘The Fifth Estate’ goes out of its way to reinforce every stereotype my 70-year-old mother (who barely knows how to e-mail) has. Pass the energy drink.”
John DeFore of the Hollywood Reporter found Cumberbatch to be a eerily good as Assange and praised him for nicely dramatizing his subject’s megalomania. Yet he felt the production suffered in comparison to another film that tried to shine a light on the internet age — “The Social Network.” “The Fifth Estate,” he argued, won’t be able to draw many of the men and women, boys and girls who comprise the Third Estate.
“Though it will attract attention at the box office, it is unlikely to appeal broadly to moviegoers who, one suspects, have never been as worked up about WikiLeaks as journalists and governments are,” DeFore wrote.
Dennis Harvey acknowledged that the film was ambitious, but implied in a lukewarm Variety review that it tried to tell too large a story in the space of its two-plus hours.
“Both the kindest and most damning thing you can say about ‘The Fifth Estate’ is that it primarily hobbles itself by trying to cram in more context-needy material than any single drama should have to bear,” Harvey wrote.
To be sure, their were a smattering of positive appraisals. Writing in the Guardian, Catherine Shoard praised the film as well-made and compelling.
“Introducing the film last night, Condon said he wanted to explore the limits of truth-telling: when was a lie too important not to expose, and when was it so crucial you must not dream of doing so?” Shoard wrote. “In that, he has succeeded admirably: this is highly competent catnip for the watercooler crowd.”