'The Fifth Estate' offers low resolution image of Julian Assange
So many modern-day on-line activists operate in anonymity - "Anonymous" even provides the name of one major collective - that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange puts a face on a major force of the Internet information age. The WikiLeaks drama The Fifth Estate generally celebrates Assange and like-minded "hacktivists" for using the World Wide Web to speak truth to power, even as it raps Assange for his personality flaws.
Based on two WikiLeaks books released in 2011, The Fifth Estate seems insecure about the importance of its own story. The script practically spams the audience with platitudes and catch-phrases about WikiLeaks as a competitor for mainstream media and a global force for both good and chaos, but seldom explores its deeper implications or the characters' psychology. Perhaps real world events moved too quickly for The Fifth Estate to digest, so it flashily repeats things you probably already knew, whether you get your news via newspaper or tweet.
Much of the film takes place from the point of view of Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), a restless corporate IT guy in Germany who allies himself with an idealistic but obscure website by Australian globetrotter Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch). When Daniel eagerly joins Julian to take on corrupt banks and other powerful forces, The Fifth Estate proves weirdly reminiscent of mid-1990s cyberthrillers like Hackers. Partly this reflects the aesthetic, as Julian has a (reportedly accurate) fondness for an old-school Linux interface in his internet communiques. Plus, the film frequently takes place at media conferences and artist squats as Daniel and Julian hang out with stylishly grungy young rabble-rousers.
Director Bill Condon previously helmed the excellent biopic Kinsey, but here struggles to visually dramatize scenes of characters typing at laptop keyboards. The film includes a cheesy, "imaginary" version of cyberspace that envisions the WikiLeaks site as a cavernous space with Julian and worldwide volunteers sitting at desks - it's like something you'd see in an IBM advertisement.
Daniel discovers that Julian, despite being a crusader for truth, will readily misrepresent facts about WikiLeaks and himself: "We have one server?" Daniel asks incredulously at one point. In a running motif, Julian offers different explanations for the whiteness of his hair. Cumberbatch gives an arrestingly weird performance, making Assange clammy, vaguely reptilian and prone to mannered gesticulations, yet full of self-assured charisma. It's no surprise that a cult would gather around Cumberbatch's version of the man, even though the film's Assange remains largely enigmatic.
Tensions between Julian and Daniel erupt over WikiLeaks' collaboration with London's The Guardian and other major newspapers to release thousands of documents involving the U.S. war in Afghanistan and other diplomatic cables. While Julian staunchly champions anonymity for whistleblowers, he insists that WikiLeaks' documents remain untouched and sneers "Editing reflects bias," even if they result in exposing the kind of sources you'd think he'd want to protect.
The film's second half introduces officials from White House and State Department (including Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie), who bicker with each other over WikiLeaks' impact. But while characters talk up the documents' release as the biggest example of whistleblowing since The Pentagon Papers - certainly a common refrain at the time - The Fifth Estate doesn't reveal their actual impact in U.S. policy in Afghanistan or elsewhere.
Screenwriter Josh Singer worked on "The West Wing" and brings to The Fifth Estate a rapid pace and fondness for jargon reminiscent of the White House TV drama. Singer's script contrasts sharply with that for The Social Network by "West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin, which offered a similar docudrama about the internet, idealism and curdled partnerships. You may not agree with The Social Network's attitudes about young people and social media, but Sorkin unquestionably gives that film a definite voice and point of view, qualities that The Fifth Estate never manages to replicate. But it might encourage the viewer to play reporter and seek out the original sources.
The Fifth Estate. 2 stars. Directed by Bill Condon. Stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl. Rated R. Opens Fri., Oct. 18. At area theaters.