The Fifth Estate
Directed by Bill Condon
Right away, this dramatization of WikiLeaks’ quick rise to prominence (also explored by Alex Gibney’s recent documentary We Steal Secrets) reverts to online-thriller cliches. During the site’s early days, Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) hops the globe while Daniel Berg (Rush’s Daniel Brühl) gives him hacktivist assistance from a supply closet at his cartoonishly terrible IT-guy job. Soon the two are squeezing their way through what look like anarchist meet-ups, toting their laptops to back rooms to work all night on the site that Julian built, their encrypted chats scrawled across the screen as they work to expose government corruption in Kenya and shady practices at a Swiss bank. Director Condon also frequently visualizes the website itself, where whistleblowers might submit documents anonymously, as a vast, no-frills office on a beach, with rows of fluorescent-light fixtures suspended against the dusk. This is meant to show WikiLeaks’ back-end as both patched-together and sophisticated—a cathedral built by keystrokes—but it calls to mind nothing so much as the brown-out cube farm that Keanu flees in The Matrix.
Brühl plays the audience’s point of identification (Josh Singer’s screenplay is based on two books, one of them by the real-life Daniel Domscheit-Berg), but Cumberbatch is, naturally, the main attraction here. The actor makes the best of what he’s given, incorporating a lot of little behavioral eccentricities without letting them muddle his portrait: his Assange is the prophet of a new way of combating institutional corruption, but he’s also something of a tyrant, the kind of guy who drops by unannounced, puts on your blazer when you’re not looking, and dips his finger into the casserole your girlfriend made for dinner (as he does to Daniel one night).
Julian and Daniel eventually butt heads over a matter of journalistic ethics, so that this overstuffed blow-by-blow history finds a surprisingly concise home-stretch hook. The white-haired Australian, here depicted as increasingly megalomaniacal, refuses to redact from classified documents the names of people who might be put in harm’s way by their publication (because editing reflects bias!), despite the pleas of his new traditional-media partners at the Guardian (David Thewlis among them) and just about everyone else affiliated with the WikiLeaks organization. But even as this central feud emerges, there remains too much going on: a perfunctory subplot also gives us the viewpoint of two State Department careerists (Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney), overwhelmed by—but eventually philosophical about—the release of the classified Afghan war logs and diplomatic cables. It’s no surprise that a commercial feature about this subject might take pains to appear evenhanded, but it’s disappointing that in the process it should also be so dramatically uneven.
Opens October 18