Rising star Benedict Cumberbatch's stated intention in playing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was to portray the man as more than "just the weird, white-haired Australian dude wanted in Sweden, hiding in an embassy behind Harrods." But Bill Condon's film "The Fifth Estate" doesn't go far enough beyond the limited impression Cumberbatch describes.
Josh Singer's highly scrutinized screenplay derives from the 2011 books "Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World's Most Dangerous Website" by former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played in the film by "Rush"'s Daniel Bruhl) and "WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy" by David Leigh and Luke Harding of Britain's venerable newspaper "The Guardian." In telling the story of the news-leaking, whistle-blowing website, the movie makes the fundamental mistake of taking Domscheit-Berg's perspective and allowing Assange to become the hero's antagonist.
This is not to say that "The Fifth Estate" doesn't try to have it both ways. The film paints Assange as an unethical master manipulator, an imperious egotist and a white-haired weirdo, but it also hammers the point that WikiLeaks marked a revolution in journalism, the next evolutionary step connoted by the title. (The film opens with a snazzy montage hurtling from the image of The Ninety-Five Theses being nailed to a door to the tussle of ailing print journalism and superpowered electronic media.)
Partly, the film establishes WikiLeaks' importance through Assange's own public appraisals -- many of them grandiose -- and partly by the scrambling reaction of government officials (Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci representing the State Department, and Anthony Mackie White House communications). Linney's character muses of Assange, "I don't know which one of us history's going to judge more harshly," but "The Fifth Estate" begins the work of harshly judging Assange, for his dubious choices (principally his seemingly capricious, perhaps lazy refusal to redact anything, including addresses and phone numbers) and his reckless approach to business, his colleagues and sensitive government information.
Covering roughly 2007 to 2010 (with a tacked-on meta ending of Cumberbatch's Assange commenting on, and ironically justifying, the film you're watching), Singer and Condon hurtle through WikiLeaks touchstones, as Assange enables exposes of Swiss bank Julius Bar, the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, Guantanamo Bay, 9/11 communications and climactically the "Cablegate" launched by Bradley Manning. Flashy graphics, slick editing and the employment of mirror sites and cryptophones contribute to the impression of a high-tech paranoid thriller.
But "The Fifth Estate" turns out to be reductive in another way: It plays like the account of a jilted lover, with the would-be dazzle attempting to misdirect from the ordinariness of the personal melodrama. Workaholism and Assange's heedless intrusiveness threaten Domscheit-Berg's relationship with his girlfriend (Alicia Vikander), while Domscheit-Berg plays interference-running Watson to Cumberbatch's near-autistic Holmes. (Condon also tiresomely teases how the two men are like a gay couple, complete with an awkward dinner-with-the-parents scene.)
Ultimately, Assange's public outcry against the movie begins to look pretty justified. He is the two-dimensional (Bond) villain of the piece, at least as interested in self-aggrandizement as in what he calls "a whole new form of social justice." Not surprisingly, Cumberbatch gives a commanding performance, but corrective rewrites to the worrying early drafts of the script obviously were too little, too late to do justice to the nuanced complexities of the man and his revolution.
Rated R for language and some violence. Two hours, eight minutes.