Friday, September 13, 2013

TIFF 2013 Review - The Fifth Estate

Julian Assange invented a computer program allowing whistleblowers to remain anonymous when they submit information about wrongdoing by their employers. The main goal of is to protect the identity of those that submit documents to the site.

Director Bill Condon starts the film at the moment where the Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel coordinate the release of confidential U.S. Military documents leaked by Private Bradley Manning to the site. The opening sequence is well crafted as the three publication jockey around the start time as the Times wants to go early while Der Spiegel want more time to publish.

Condon then heads back to 2007 when Assange and WikiLeaks were unknown and struggling to get a 15-minute spot at a Berlin tech event. Here we meet Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) Assange's first hire and the point of view for the piece. Berg's first assignment for the Internet Start up is to gather information to verify a leak on an elaborate tax evasion scheme at Swiss Bank Julian Baer.

The key to the WikiLeaks is the platform where a poster submits a document.  The initial submission goes through multiple layers that renders attempts to find the location of the original point of entry into the system impossible. The site itself does not have or maintain the information. Their first shot at the U.S. government occurred when publishing the protocols for detailing with detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

The films two lead actors deliver strong performances.  Benedict Cumberbach is notable as Assange the troubled founder with zero social skills and issues that date back to his upbringing in a cult in Australia.  Daniel Bruel is credible as Berg the second in command and moral compass of the organization. Berg constantly pushes for one last fact check and a review of the consequence before they post.

Cinematographer Tobais Schliessler work is a highlight of the piece. Bright rich colours dominate the screen. The script contains several meeting scenes in nightclubs, bars, tech events and counterculture hot spots. Schliessler sets the tone for these scenes using different lighting techniques with an emphasis on vivid flashing images.

Where the movie falls short is its repeated use of the same devices. First among these is the constant use of dueling laptops amongst to demonstrate that the characters are doing very important programming quickly. The other main offense is the multiple uses of the virtual server room with rows and rows of desks showing nameplates of the main players. Perhaps the worse sequence in the movie combine the two when Daniel and fellow programmer Marcus (Moritz Bleibtreau) set up their laptops side by side to take down the site punctuated by Daniel flipping over desks in the virtual room to leave no doubt that the site has crashed.

Overall The Fifth Estate does not venture deeply into the subject matter. The film does not include any perspective from a whistle blowers point of view as they attempt to submit to the site. A secondary story featuring three state department employees and a Libyan contact serves as a distraction from the main story. The Fifth Estate is an uneven effort that I cannot recommend despite. good performances from the two lead actors. The material is weak and the script repetitive.

**  Out of 4.

The Fifth Estate | Bill Condon |  U.S.A. / Belgium | 124 Minutes.

Tags: Whistleblower,, Internet start up, privacy, U.S. Government, Julius Baer Bank, Guantanamo Bay, U.S. Diplomatic Cables.

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