I gotta agree with budding film critic Julian Assange on this one: The Fifth Estate, which purports to depict the rise of the WikiLeaks founder, played by Benedict Cumberbatch and the momentous release of documents supplied by (then) Bradley Manning, is a feeble, reactionary drama. Director Bill Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer have decided to frame this as a saga of seduction and disillusionment. Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) falls under the spell of Assange, exults in WikiLeaks’ cyberomnipotence, and then realizes that his charismatic leader is psychotically indifferent to the human cost of releasing government documents. (Assange won’t redact.) To illustrate this, the filmmakers invent a pair of U.S. spy masters played by Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci, who must smuggle the doctor from Deep Space 9 across a border. It gets hairy.
You don’t have to be an Assange groupie (or a paranoiac) to think Condon finally gives short shrift to the role of whistleblowers in an ever more secret society. Alex Gibney, in his recent documentary We Steal Secrets, got the balance about right: He left you thinking that Assange has lost whatever marbles he once had but that for a while he functioned as a necessary — and even inspiring — corrective. (Assange didn’t like that movie, either.) Condon puts some weight on the horrific content of these documents and the window they provide into the kind of incompetence, corruption, and abuse of power that ought to have put the material itself — and not the whereabouts of Julian Assange — on the front pages for months. But that doesn’t figure much in the movie’s moral equation. It’s just part of the general babble. (Berg: “These are human beings, Julian!”)
The first half of The Fifth Estate is entertaining. Although Assange has been likened to Mick Jagger, Cumberbatch sensibly resists the opportunity to climb the walls. He makes Assange himself the carrier of secrets (dirty ones), a man who visibly tingles at the prospect of burying his traces in “clouds of code.” Bruhl is a superbly intelligent actor, and it’s a good Hollywood moment when his Berg outwits his mentor and dams the flow of information. But by then, Cumberbatch has become a Bond villain and the movie hopelessly square. The low points are the scenes with Linney and Tucci, who seem as if they’re an insert per a State Department request. They reminded me of the Martians in Plan 9 From Outer Space that stand around passing judgment on foolish Earthlings. (“They’re computer geeks looking at the war through a pinhole!”) The lesson of this is that there’s no easy way to dramatize the story of Julian Assange and that trying to turn it into a conventional melodrama is not just politically irresponsible but dull-witted.