TUESDAY MARCH 28, 2017
 
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TIFF13 DAY 3: LET THE OSCAR BAITING BEGIN
TheFifthEstate.jpg

Today, TIFF’s mini-Oscar bait race kicks off with the Wikileaks feature The Fifth Estate and Parkland, yet another film about the assassination of JFK.

The Fifth Estate

It was inevitable that someone would make a movie about Julian Assange’s wacky Wikileaks adventure. What was never quite as clear was that the movie would arrive so quickly – or even work. Yet, the surprise success of The Social Network clearly sped up production on Assange’s own bio and while this new movie isn’t quite as effective as its forebearer, it does still boast most of the Facebook movie’s strengths. Also adapted from a memoir by a former partner, The Fifth Estate offers another complex portrait of an internet antihero who emerges as neither saint nor villain, but a complex human as thoroughly fucked up as he is ingenious. It’s strange that you have to make an internet tycoon bio-pic to make a complex character piece in Hollywood these days, but at least it’s still possible.

The film opens with Assange acting like a new messiah, a fearless pioneer who wants to tear down the lies propagated by the power structure of the old world/media with the Wild West freedom of the internet. For years, it works and Assange lives up to his self-made legend. Then his reckless decision to publish a quarter million unedited and unread documents from the U.S. government needlessly risks lives while revealing Assange’s megalomania and inept social skills. It’s all surprisingly faithful to the actual events without needlessly moralizing or demonizing, even mocking its own existence in an amusing coda.

Benedict Cumberbatch (who Hollywood apparently decided to cast in every film this year) is spectacular as Assange, disappearing into the role without ever devolving into a mere impression and somehow outshining a few of Hollywood’s worst wigs in recent memory. In a more subtle performance, Daniel Bruhl is just as strong as Assange’s troubled partner, with the actor somehow finding a memorable character in what easily could have been a bland audience cipher. The Fifth Estate isn’t perfect, of course. The first half verges perilously close to hero worship, a few side characters (particularly Bruhl’s dull girlfriend) offer little more than exposition devouring window dressing, and the way in which the Wikileaks website is visualized can be laughably distracting. Still, director Bill Condon (Oscar-winning Gods And Monsters and Razzie-nominated Twilight: Breaking Dawn Parts 1&2) has made a Julian Assange movie that the subject deserved rather than the one the market demanded … mostly. This is sure to be the definitive Wikileaks movie until the next one – and that’s the best we could have hoped for.

 

Billy Bob Thornton in ParklandParkland

On November 22, 1963 U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. If you didn’t know that, it means that you died before that date. Yet, despite JFK’s assassination being one of the most widely reported and retold stories of the 20th century, yet another movie has been made about the subject. Parkland is not a bad movie. In fact, it’s quite well made by first-timer Peter Landesman and even very well acted. The trouble is that you can’t help but wonder why flog a dead horse (or president)? There’s a scene early on when Zac Efron and Colin Hanks as ER doctors keep pushing on JFK’s heart beyond reason, desperately hoping they’ll somehow revive his long dead body. It’s not a bad metaphor for the central problem with the movie’s existence.

The film is an ensemble piece taking place on the day of the assassination. Through frantic shaking cameras, Landesman weaves together a massive ensemble of folks directly affected by the tragedy. JFK and Jackie O are both in the movie, but mostly in the background. The movie is mostly about the profound effect this event had on the people in Dallas there to witness it, which in turn represents the similar effect it had on the world at large. So we spend a great deal of time with the medical staff of Parkland hospital (including Efron, Hanks and Marcia Gay Harden), watch as Billy Bob Thorton’s stressed head of the Dallas secret service shuttles a stressed Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) around to develop his famous footage, see the FBI fumble through the Lee Harvey Oswald case, and experience the horror of Oswald’s estranged brother (James Badge Dale) discovering his familial connection to the national tragedy. All of the stories collide and intersect in intriguing ways, with Landesman capturing the frantic insanity of the day quite well and balancing all of his competing narratives impressively within a 93 minute running time.

The performances are strong (particularly Jacki Weaver’s charmingly nutso Mama Oswald) and the attention to detail in honouring the historical event is quite impressive. The trouble is that there’s absolutely nothing new here that hasn’t been covered in countless news reports, books, documentaries and fiction features. Granted, Parkland is one of the better JFK assassination flicks out there, the film just feels so unnecessary at this point that it doesn’t really register. It’s fine, at times even quite good, but nothing special. However, you can’t help but wish with throughout that the filmmaker and his cast had focused on a more recent and less rehashed American tragedy instead. Maybe next time. Hopefully next time. But sadly, not this time.

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