Director: Bill Condon
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Alicia Vikander, Moritz Bleibtreu, David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie, Stanley Tucci
Julian Assange is one of the most divisive figures in international politics in the last decade. To some he is a hero, a champion for democracy and free speech. To others he is a self-important egomaniac with little respect for the consequences of his actions. Earlier this year the story of Assange and WikiLeaks was explored on screen in Alex Gibney’s compelling documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, and now they’re back in cinemas, this time as a thriller in Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate.
Condon, fresh off the last two instalments of The Twilight Saga, brings us the story through the eyes of Assange’s one-time partner Daniel Berg, starting from the moment when WikiLeaks burst on to the international scene by exposing the illegal activities of Swiss bank Julius Baer and continuing through to the 2010 leak of the ‘Iraq War Logs’ and a quarter of a million US diplomatic cables, and the subsequent arrest of Bradley Manning.
Adapted from Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s book Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website, The Fifth Estate presents a rather damning account of Assange’s personality and actions – which is interesting given the film’s trailers were cut together in such a way that they appeared quite pro-Assange. The screenplay was written by Josh Singer, once a writer on The West Wing, though he hasn’t managed to bring the Sorkin-esque sharpness of dialogue that made that show so brilliant to this project.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Assange, an egotistical control freak who possesses little in the way of social skills, is an elusive character. We are given very little insight into what, outside of ego, makes him tick. We are presented with snippets of his troubled childhood as though that explains everything, but the links between the past and the present are not always apparent. Yet despite the aggressiveness of this portrayal, it is hard to see how The Fifth Estate will change anyone’s mind about Assange or the events that occurred. His detractors will agree with the negative aspects of the representation, while his supporters will shout character assassination. Lacking in any real revelations, the film leaves you none the wiser on the whole issue.
As Berg, Daniel Brühl provides the human centre of the film. It is his journey, rather than Assange’s, that we go on. Berg is initially swept up in the excitement of Assange’s crusade. Over time he starts to doubt his decision making and his priorities, until finally he comes to doubt his motivations. Berg is the film’s conscience and the progression of his relationship to Assange and the idea that he represents seems to be reflective of many people’s response.
Stylistically, The Fifth Estate is a bit overbearing. Condon employs a number of different methods to visually represent the cyberspace in which WikiLeaks exists, and the online communication between its members, and before long you are feeling bombarded by flashing and flying text.
Given that every day our newspapers are still filled with stories relating to Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and the revelations that the US has been tapping the phones of the leaders of allied nations, there is no doubt that The Fifth Estate is a timely film. However, despite this timeliness, it is neither revelatory enough nor well executed enough to establish itself as an important film.
Rating – ★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara
Two men, both brilliant but both completely different. One is flamboyant, brash and impulsive. The other is calculating, methodical and abrasive. They are James Hunt and Niki Lauda, and they are the subject of Ron Howard’s latest film, Rush, which tells the story of their famous rivalry from its origins in lower division racing to its culmination in a head to head battle for the 1976 Formula One World Championship, a season which would for different reasons change both of their lives.
This is not just a movie for Formula One fans. In fact, to call Rush a sports movie feels reductive. The film starts with a voiceover from Lauda. “Twenty-five people start Formula One and each year two die. What kind of person does a job like that?” Rush is a character study. What kind of person willingly takes that kind of risk? The movie presents us with two opposite but co-dependent figures who are, in their different ways, that kind of person.
With two characters as diametrically opposed as Hunt and Lauda a more simplistic film would have sought to establish a clear hero and a villain, a protagonist and an antagonist. Rush gives no such clear cut definitions. Instead both characters are complex personalities and both characters at different times have the audience on their side. Hunt, despite his charm, provides many of the films darker moments. Likewise, Lauda, despite his analytical nature provides most of the films laughs.
With the entire film being built around these two personalities, much falls on the shoulders of Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl and both arguably deliver career best performances. The key to both performances is the actor’s ability – with the help of Peter Morgan’s fine screenplay – to take their character beyond caricature. Having already played a superhero and being blessed with superhuman handsomeness, Hemsworth heightens Hunt’s charm and makes for a believable playboy. But it is the moments where he takes you beneath the surface, beneath the façade, that really show his talent. Likewise, Brühl’s calculating and abrasive Lauda could have been yet another a simplistic, Germanic villain but Brühl gives him depth and as a result his own charm and likeability.
That all being said, Rush still really works as a sports movie. It is the best film ever made about motor sports. The racing scenes are exhilarating. While the actual depiction of the sporting event is where many sports movies fall short, Howard successfully brings life to the contest between these two men (the rest of the drivers are irrelevant), demonstrating the speed, closeness and incredible danger of what they do. Just as importantly, no two of the races feel the same. For each race there is something specific that draws our focus, so the drama never disappears.
Ron Howard has always been a gifted storyteller but over the last decade he seems to have had more misses than hits. He is a filmmaker who at times has been prone to playing it safe, but there is nothing safe about Rush either in its subject or its execution. Rush is a real return to form for him, the best motor racing film ever made, and one of the films of the year.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean