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The TIFF 2013 Review Report: 'The Fifth Estate' Has a Rocky Festival Opening

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by Steve Greene
September 6, 2013 10:19 AM
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The TIFF Review Report rounds up some of the festival's notable premieres, along with a sampling of their reviews and tweets from Ontario's capital.

Regardless of what eventually happens with the TIFF 2013 opening night film "The Fifth Estate," some of the high-profile cast and crew will have opportunities in the immediate future.

Just days before the premiere of the new Julian Assange/Wikileaks biopic, news broke that director Bill Condon's next project would reteam him and his erstwhile "Gods and Monsters" star Ian McKellen. Daniel Brühl, who plays fellow Wikileaks activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg, will have another chance to be a based-on-a-true-story co-star at a TIFF 2013 when Ron Howard's "Rush" first plays on Sunday evening. And then there's Benedict Cumberbatch, who seemingly has both the Internet and the casting world at his disposal. In addition to his turn here in "The Fifth Estate" as Assange, he'll also be seen at Toronto in Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" and John Well's "August: Osage County" adaptation (not to mention later this year in the first of the last two installments of Peter Jackson's tiny little indie "Hobbit" trilogy).

And after last night, it might just be time to start looking forward, not just with this film, but the festival overall. While "The Fifth Estate" does have some supporters, after a press screening and an opening night gala, some of the film's lofty expectations have been significantly undercut. It certainly doesn't help when compared to the glowing feedback that immediately followed last year's opener "Looper." But is there enough tenuous love for this dramatized version of the Wikileaks story or will "We Steal Secrets" be enough to tide over anyone interested in the recent, real-life saga? We've collected the first reviews below.

Reviews:

Kevin Jagernauth's review at The Playlist suggests that "The Fifth Estate" is hamstrung by its inability (or willingness) to give context to an event that happened in the not-so-distant past:

"All told, nearly three quarters of the film is spent trying to decode Assange without much to show for it, but its only in the final act that 'The Fifth Estate' decides to engage and try to discuss the ethics, morals and consequences of Wikieaks work' -- and in particular around the release of the Afghanistan War Logs -- in any substantive way, but again a lack of courage on behalf of the filmmakers to take any position renders the film narratively limp."

The necessity of the screenplay turns its central figure into the star of a political drama rather than show off his full potential as a true character, writes Tim Grierson at Screen Daily:

"Condon’s attitude toward Assange seems to be that he is a brilliant, passionate muckraker who let ego get in the way of his honourable intentions. But by trying to be fair-minded in their treatment of Assange, the director and his star stay frustratingly on the surface, unable to capture the man’s off-kilter magnetism or his ambition."

There's an inherent contradiction in the origins of the script itself, explains Now's John Semley:

"That Josh Singer's screenplay is based in large part on Domscheit-Berg's book is only mentioned in an odd pre-end credits mea culpa...But Singer and Condon's escape hatch is wholly disingenuous, given that the preceding two hours are exhausted developing a careful image of Assange as a self-interested liar."

Cumberbatch's central turn evokes memories of a recent classic, writes Eric Kohn in his Indiewire review, but that's where the similarities end:

"With rising star Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role, buried under long blond hair and a thick Australian accent, "The Fifth Estate" gets one thing right: The actor looks and talks the part with a jittery intensity comparable to Jessie Eisenberg's similarly passionate techie in David Fincher's 'The Social Network.' Unlike Fincher's eloquent approach, however, "The Fifth Estate" has none of the observational insight found in Aaron Sorkin's wry script; instead, Condon's take messily oscillates between ham-fisted ideological sermons and the ingredients of a cyber thriller."

Although some of the production details are meticulous, Jordan Hoffman argues that most of the hacker elements here aren't quite as convincing:

"I’m not much of a computer hacker, so I can’t speak to the verisimilitude of all those black screen laptops and non-user friendly chat clients, but I will say that the way hacker culture is presented is an absolute joke. '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."

The Telegraph's Tim Robey found some bright spots in the journalistic supporting cast:

"Meanwhile, Guardian HQ has a comically frazzled, Thick Of It vibe, thanks to Peter Capaldi’s nervy sketch of Alan Rusbridger, with Dan Stevens and David Thewlis as his cronies. The movie’s sideshows are always lively, but there’s a problem at the centre — through no real fault of Brühl’s, the Assange-Berg relationship never feels like a starting point of any real substance."

While not all of the storytelling seems to resonate, Hitfix's Drew McWeeny does give credit to Condon for trying to invigorate the proceedings with some stylistic flair:

"Writer/director Bill Condon deserves all sorts of respect for trying to figure out a way to make large chunks of this movie more visually dynamic than you'd expect, considering this is largely about people sitting in front of laptops and typing, but he runs into many of the same issues that were part of all the 'computer hacker' movies in the '90s. The only way you can make this more visually exciting is to try to find a way to make us feel, as an audience, what it feels like to be Assange and Domscheit-Berg as they publish material that they know is going to shake up the status quo, and there are moments where the film captures that quite well."
Ultimately, Variety's Dennis Harvey summarizes a theme that runs through many of these reviews: that "The Fifth Estate" might be trying to tackle too much at once:
"Any five minutes of foregrounded human interest or backgrounded news material here could easily float a feature on its own. 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."

Instant Twitterverse Reaction:

Peter HowellToronto Star:

"THE FIFTH ESTATE: Cumberbatch excels as WikiLeaks squealer J. Assange but film's info dump unsteadily mixes biopic, thriller & doc."

Ben KenigsbergThe AV Club:

"THE FIFTH ESTATE: If you've read a website, newspaper, or scroll within the last few years you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect."

Steven WeintraubCollider:

"Thought Bill Condon's FIFTH ESTATE was great. Learned a lot I didn't know and felt like he told all sides. Casting was perfect."

Fred TopelCrave Online:

"THE FIFTH ESTATE is ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN from Deep Throat's POV. Good portrait, but it's no JOBS. :)"

Mike HoganHuffington Post:

"Whatever else you may say about The Fifth Estate, Benedict Cumberbatch is a real movie star now."

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