The Fifth Estate, a topical drama about Julian Assange, the Australian who claimed to have founded WikiLeaks, and his crusade, would like to spill all the inside beans about the site the way The Social Network recounted the birth of Facebook. Instead, it ends up jumbling its story with so much data that the viewer is primarily left with the image of Assange running his hand through his silver hair.
Does the whole international ado about WikiLeaks already strike you as ancient history?
Only three years ago, most of us first learned about the secretive website that published sensitive documents and videos sent to it by whistle-blowers who were promised anonymity.
The most vivid impression came from interviews with Julian Assange, the Australian who claimed to have founded the site in Iceland and proudly declared a new era of forced transparency for whichever world powers or groups fell into its cross hairs.
The Fifth Estate, a topical drama about Assange and his crusade, would like to spill all the inside beans about WikiLeaks the way The Social Network recounted the birth of Facebook. Instead, it ends up jumbling its story with so much data that the viewer is primarily left with the image of Assange running his hand through his silver hair.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Assange as a slippery mix of obsessive anarchist and scheming egotist, which reflects much of the conventional view. This rebel with a cause also develops a streak of paranoia, some of it justified as his more spectacular revelations draw the angry attention of vengeful people in power.
Closer to a comfortable hero is German tech-whiz Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl), an eager idealist who meets Assange in 2007 and quickly becomes his critical co-conspirator. Berg comes off as the essence of moral reason, not surprising because the real Berg wrote one of the books on which the script is based.
The film crams a lot of content into its first hour, only getting to the really big stuff well past the middle. Along the way, the characters make a lot of speeches about the need to expose government secrets. But the film starts to sputter when a darker issue rears its unfortunate head: What if
the release of all that unedited material leads to fatal
retribution against innocent people?
Director Bill Condon drives the film ruthlessly with jerky cameras and frenetic editing (one hug between two people is cut into three shots), but pity Condonís situation: He had to stitch together a cyber-age movie about characters who spend most of their time typing, while spouting jargon that will seem like a foreign language to many viewers who canít remember more than one computer password.
In the end, The Fifth Estate canít decide whether Assange and WikiLeaks have unleashed an age of greater openness or unnecessary danger. Are we living in such a different world today?
Its lasting impact comes from Cumberbatchís seemingly authentic impersonation of a strange genius who can do good and harm in equal amounts and not always understand the difference.