The Fifth Estate takes on the important 21st century question of information flow vs. privacy rights and fumbles it into a middling mishmash of techno thriller and future-of-journalism lecture. Directed by Bill Condon (the Breaking Dawn films, Dreamgirls, Kinsey), the movie is based on books about activist and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the polarizing figure who became famous by posting secret documents from whistleblowers on his website. Both were written by former collaborators, so The Fifth Estate comes with a less than generous view of Assange. Through the eyes of his protege and eventual partner, computer programmer Daniel (played by Daniel Bruhl of Rush and Inglourious Basterds), Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a devoted champion of the underdog whose feet of clay swiftly crumble once his gargantuan ego is challenged.
The Fifth Estate — if you’re not familiar with the reference, fear not; one of the newspaper editors in the film will explain it eventually — focuses on the relationship between the two men, with the mysterious Assange as a sort of Svengali who seduces Daniel with promises that they can change the world, even if they have only one server. Daniel is enthralled by the charismatic Australian (who may suffer from some form of schizophrenia, the movie hints), and he neglects his job and personal life to throw himself into the task of toppling corrupt banks and greedy politicians.
But their partnership is threatened when they clash over a leak of classified documents on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Assange is not interested in redacting names of government sources; Daniel and the Guardian editor who wants to co-publish the story (David Thewlis) say publishing the names will get people killed all over the world. Assange won’t budge: To him, editing equals bias.
The movie provides a good showcase for British star Cumberbatch and Bruhl, both of whom deliver good performances, but overall it turns out to be more of an elementary primer on WikiLeaks than anything else. Taking on the story of Assange in a visual medium was always going to be a problem: Computer code, IMs, emails and people banging away on keyboards does not translate well to film, no matter how many bells and whistles you slap on it. Condon slaps on quite a few, some more effective than others; The Fifth Estate is that rare film with a “Let’s Set Up More Servers!” musical montage. There’s also a repeated visual metaphor that falters more every time Condon returns to it.
The film lacks focus; with such an intriguing story at hand, the sideplot of Daniel being too obsessed with his new calling to pay attention to his girlfriend (Alicia Vikander of Anna Karenina) feels superfluous and could have been omitted. Nor does the film explore the sexual assault allegations against Assange or the fact that he’s now biding time at the Ecuadorean embassy in London (he has been granted diplomatic immunity there), dealing with those parts of the story via end credits. Whatever you think of him — hero or traitor or something in between? — Assange is a compelling figure that merited a better effort.
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Peter Capaldi, Dan Stevens.
Director: Bill Condon.
Screenwriters: Daniel Domscheit-Berg, David Leigh, Luke Harding, Josh Singer. Based on the books Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website by Domscheit-Berg and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by Leigh and Harding.
Producers: Steve Golin, Michael Sugar.
A Dreamworks Pictures release. Running time: 128 minutes. Language, some violence. Opens Friday oct. 18 at area theaters.