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The Fifth Estate Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD Digital Copy Review

The Fifth Estate (2013) movie poster The Fifth Estate

Theatrical Release: October 18, 2013 / Running Time: 128 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Bill Condon / Writers: Josh Singer (screenplay); Daniel Domscheit-Berg (book Inside WikiLeaks); David Leigh, Luke Harding (The Guardian book WikiLeaks)

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Julian Assange), Daniel Brühl (Daniel Berg), Anthony Mackie (Sam Colson), David Thewlis (Nick Davies), Alicia Vikander (Anke Domscheit), Stanley Tucci (James Boswell), Laura Linney (Sarah Shaw), Peter Capaldi (Alan Rusbridger), Moritz Bleibtreu (Marcus), Jamie Blackley (Ziggy), Carice Van Houten (Birgitta Jónsdóttir), Dan Stevens (Ian Katz), Alexander Siddig (Dr. Tarek Haliseh), Franziska Walser (Daniel's Mother), Edgar Selge (Daniel's Father)

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There seems to be very little doubt as to what the producers of The Fifth Estate had in mind. What The Social Network had done for Facebook, this 2013 drama set out to do for WikiLeaks. Instead of the great David Fincher in the helm
and a script by the decorated Aaron Sorkin, though, Fifth Estate had The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn's Bill Condon directing and "The West Wing" and "Fringe" scribe Josh Singer penning the screenplay.

Though each moderately budgeted drama of questioned veracity opened in October to some anticipation, the results could not have been more different. While Social Network went on to box office success and three Oscar wins, Fifth Estate was an extraordinary flop, grossing just over $3 million domestically in wide release on poor reviews and failing to earn even a single film-specific award nomination.

The opposite receptions do accurately reflect the dissimilar quality of the films, but they also underscore the fundamental differences of the world-shaping websites whose inventions are being dramatized. Whereas the press, governments, and academics care about WikiLeaks, people in general care about Facebook. The most interesting thing to me about WikiLeaks is just how uninteresting its supposedly game-changing disclosures and declassified documents have been.

For all the attention, controversy, and coverage that have surrounded Julian Assange's non-profit "journalistic" organization over the past several years, the English language version of the site has an Alexa.com global traffic rank of just 11,938 (the lower, the better). Papajohns.com's global rank is 3,433. It's hardly news the typical person prefers pizza to politics. Still, I suspect that the story of how "Papa" John Schnatter founded the popular chain in 1983 in a broom closet in the back of his father's Indiana tavern would make a more fascinating film than this.

"The Fifth Estate" stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange, the founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks.

The Fifth Estate establishes its self-importance almost immediately. Its opening scene charts the evolution of news media with clips from the reporting of historic events. The computer, you see, has succeeded telegraph wires, the newspaper, and even the TV newsman.

Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a man with a computer and a desire to make waves. We journey back a few years to when the young-ish Australian man with long white hair is not yet being taken seriously. An accomplished hacker, Assange finds a trustworthy partner in Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl), a German man who vows to help his cause while bringing the graphics of his presentations into the 21st century.

WikiLeaks is founded on a submission platform that protects the anonymity of those leaking the documents. Assange and Berg's project, which doesn't really involve the hundreds of volunteers Assange claims, starts getting notice after the two investigate and uncover corruption in a giant Swiss bank, whose swift legal action is quickly overturned. By then, the damage is done and Assange and Berg are drunk on the power they wield. More breakthroughs follow: secret Scientology documents, footage of the Japanese nuclear reactor meltdown, half a million 9/11 texts, and video of US military attacks on civilians.

As none of those items really grabs your attention or makes for compelling cinema, Fifth Estate tries to sex up the story of these two men with computers. They send messages back and forth through a secure chat room. A pretty girl (Alicia Vikander) gets in the middle, with Assange's work ethic trumping Berg's burgeoning love life. There's even a Zuckerberg/Eduardo rift created between these two, as Assange's ego grows.

Assange's paranoia also grows, with some reason, as he realizes his site has made him unpopular with covert agencies, military branches, and heads of state.

Tech-savvy German Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl) becomes Julian Assange's right-hand man. Fictional U.S. Middle East Affairs undersecretary Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney) is among those caught in the warpath of WikiLeaks.

The movie tries so hard to mine drama and action from the facts. There's international travel, sketchy men behaving suspiciously, real news excerpts. US government officials (played by Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, and Anthony Mackie) are put on the defensive when Assange plans to leak cables
in conjunction with a practical journalist from UK's The Guardian (David Thewlis). Condon repeatedly resorts to the cheesy image of Berg and Assange working in this vast imagined workplace.

The fact of the matter is that this story doesn't give us much to see or feel. Assange seems to lose sight of his mission as his site's profile rises from media exposure. This throws a wrench into the friendship of the two men. You've seen this before and it was better when it was an invention that featured in your life and brought out strong performances from Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Armie Hammer (x2). Cumberbatch, Brühl, and company are no match. Condon is no David Fincher. Singer, no Aaron Sorkin.

After two straight years of getting the Walt Disney Company into the Academy Awards' Best Picture race, DreamWorks Pictures fell short in 2013, lacking a Spielberg period drama or a surprise crowd-pleaser like The Help. DreamWorks' 2013 output was limited to Fifth Estate and the Vince Vaughn movie Delivery Man, meaning they failed Disney both creatively and commercially, not that the latter undid much of the fortune generated by blockbusters like Iron Man 3, Frozen, and Monsters University. In light of such in-house tentpoles living up to their expectations (and that class will soon grow to include Star Wars and Indiana Jones sequels), one doubts that Disney will stay in partnership with DreamWorks after their 5-year distribution expires in 2015.

The Fifth Estate's commercial floundering requires some perspective. Of last year's films released to over 1,000 theaters, only one performed worse: the Ed Harris/David Duchovny Cold War submarine thriller Phantom, which bombed in obscurity as the first and probably last release of a company called RCR Distribution. No other film came close to Fifth Estate's futility, its $946 opening weekend per-theater average standing as the 76th worst on record, putting it in the same league as such duds as Eddie Murphy's The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Rainn Wilson's The Rocker, and Roberto Benigni's Pinocchio.

Despite that staggering ineffectiveness, Disney still treated the film to a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack once reserved for hits and family films. Nonsensically rebranding the film "The 5ifth Estate", it was released yesterday, timing the studio has long employed on adult-oriented fall theatrical openings.

Watch a clip from The Fifth Estate:

The Fifth Estate: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD Digital Copy combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.40:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
BD: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Both: Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish), Dolby Surround 2.0 (DVS)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish; DVD-only: Chinese
DVD Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: January 28, 2014
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (1 BD-50 & 1 DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $36.99
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available as standalone DVD ($29.99 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Even in appearance, The Fifth Estate apes The Social Network, opting for the blue and green tints resembling the glow of computer screens on a human face. There probably is no better way to try to make men on computers seem exciting and tense, but the movie, of course, still lacks Fincher's visual gusto. The Blu-ray's 2.40:1 transfer is sharp, clean, and vibrant, realizing the enormous potential for new films in high definition.

The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio is also technically satisfying. The Carter Burwell score and forgettable musical selections serve the film well in the moment and complement, rather than overpower, the dialogue that drives the film. The default subtitles track is a secondary English one which takes a tiny bit of the computer text off the screen.

Benedict Cumberbatch is shot on green screen with motion capture for the visual effects that will convey Julian Assange's imaginary workplace. Composer Carter Burwell discusses the textures of his score, which he compares to his prior ones for director Bill Condon.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray's all-HD extras begin with "The Submission Platform" (10:25), a featurette celebrating and deconstructing the film's visual effects depicting Assange's dream office. These crew members are passionate about the work, which it's too bad isn't in a better film.

"In Camera: Graphics" (6:25) looks at other attempts to enliven the film visually, from projecting text over the actors' faces to having each character's screen be a different color.

"Scoring Secrets" (9:11) turns our attention to composer Carter Burwell's work on the film and the various textures it assumes.

A "Fifth Estate" TV ad pushes a hashtag and a Pete Hammond quote. The Fifth Estate's DVD and Blu-ray employ this layered, high-tech main menu montage.

Finally, an unusual inclusion for a Disney disc, we get the film's theatrical trailer and seven 15-60 hashtag-pushing second TV spots (6:34), viewable individually and as a group.
Could this section indicate a welcome change in policy for Disney? If not, it's odd that the studio would preserve some of 2013's least effective film marketing.

The same disc sold on its own, the combo pack's DVD loses "In Camera: Graphics" and "Scoring Secrets", which seems needless based on their brevity. At least the disc is filled close to dual-layered capacity. Both are, in fact.

The discs open with trailers for Delivery Man, Need for Speed, and Thor: The Dark World, followed by an anti-smoking spot. The Sneak Peeks listing repeats the same trailers.

The menu plays surveillancey-filtered clips as part of a pool of leaked documents. Like other Buena Vista BDs, this one doesn't resume playback or let you set bookmarks, though it does remember where unfinished playback left off.

In addition to the two plainly-labeled discs, the slipcovered side-snapped keepcase contains a single insert supplying directions and a unique code for downloading the digital copy included with your purchase. It's in iTunes format only, as Disney remains the only major studio to shun the UltraViolet format.

Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is briefly alone with his thoughts as his right hand man Daniel approaches.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Fifth Estate would be more original without The Social Network existing, but it still wouldn't make for the arresting thriller it wants to be. The public's complete aversion seems like a perfectly fair reaction to this not so profound story of reckless new hacker journalism. Though well-acted and reasonably well staged, the film can't help but feel like a second-rate knock-off of a more resonant and relevant drama.

Sporting great video/audio and an okay half-hour of bonus features, this Blu-ray combo pack doesn't earn a recommendation for the unacquainted, but should possibly satisfy the few who really liked this movie.

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Reviewed January 29, 2014.



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