By Ben Mk
Before Edward Snowden and the NSA surveillance scandal, there was Julian Assange and the saga of WikiLeaks. Branded as a villain by some and hailed as a hero by others, Assange became a controversial figure for his role in a new, global wave of citizen journalism that knew no bounds — moral or otherwise. In The Fifth Estate, director Bill Condon tackles the enigma of the WikiLeaks founder and reflects on the lasting moral and ethical implications of his legacy.
Lies. Deception. Censorship. When we first meet Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in the film, these are the things that he claims to be riling against. But, just as WikiLeaks' labyrinthian submission platform makes determining the source of a leak an all but impossible task, uncovering the truth behind the man isn't for the faint of heart. Viewers are introduced to the story at a crucial moment in time — the simultaneous release of the Afghanistan War Logs by The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2010 — before being transported back to 2007, to witness its beginnings.
Political overtones color the film, thanks to the world stage on which its events unfold. Although WikiLeaks initially sets its sights on exposing corruption at a major Swiss bank, things soon turn to toppling foreign regimes and government subversion. This stokes the ire of US government agencies and foreign parties alike, threatening the safety of sources and placing lives at risk. But despite the globe-trotting subterfuge, the film's focus lies on the tenuous relationship between Assange and his colleague, Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl). If Assange is the driving force behind WikiLeaks, then Berg is surely its moral compass. Much of the story is framed around his experience, and how he goes from being enamored by Assange's motto — "courage is contagious" — to questioning their organization's ethics. Through Berg's eyes, we watch as Assange's actions become as questionable as those of the morally bankrupt goliaths they work to bring down — and Assange himself becomes guilty of the same lies, deception and censorship that he so vehemently opposes.
Condon and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler's kinetic visual style and slick sense of visual storytelling are aptly represented in the Blu-ray's transfer, which never falters in delivering a crisp and clear image — whether it be the sleek and modern UK offices of The Guardian, the grungier look of Berg's Berlin apartment or the surreal submission platform. On the audio front, there's activity aplenty to be found amidst the film's soundstage — driven primarily by the electronica-inspired score — which the robust DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack handles with aplomb.
Over thirty minutes of HD special features grace the Blu-ray release, which includes the film's theatrical trailer, seven promo spots and a trio of featurettes — The Submission Platform: Visual Effects, focusing on the creation of the visual metaphor that is the submission platform and its role in the film's narrative, In-Camera: Graphics, detailing the effort that went into creating in-camera content for the many computer displays seen throughout the film, and Scoring Secrets, outlining the collaborative approach taken by composer Carter Burwell in crafting the film's score — that delve into the look and feel of the film. The only thing missing from this otherwise well-rounded set of extras is some background information on the real-life story and perhaps some insight into the deeper aspects of the film's production. The Blu-ray release also includes a DVD copy of the film, as well as a code redeemable for an iTunes digital copy.
Is The Fifth Estate a fair portrayal of Julian Assange, or is it merely one perspective on the truth? The film dares viewers to judge for themselves, offering up an intriguing, engaging and thrilling study of the rise (and fall) of WikiLeaks and its founder as evidence. Evaluating the merit of the film's Blu-ray release yields a much more definitive conclusion: bolstered by the kind of stellar A/V quality befitting a recent film release, and featuring a modest, yet entertaining and informative, selection of extras, The Fifth Estate on Blu-ray is easily recommended.
The Film — ★★★★
Audio/Visual Fidelity — ★★★★
Special Features — ★★★
* Reviewer's note: Portions of this Blu-ray review were adapted from my original review of the theatrical release, published on October 18th, 2013.