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WikiLeaks, the renegade news outlet that takes hacked secrets from government agencies and publishes them to the world sans redaction while protecting the identity of the whistle blower through an elaborate ‘submission platform,’ that’s so secure, even the publisher doesn’t know the identity of the leaker. That site’s notoriety achieved its apex when it published reports exposing US intelligence assets abroad and crass snippy inter-office memos from those in the State Department trashing world leaders. But that’s just the background and part of the denouement in “The Fifth Estate” which is really more a character study of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his meteoric rise to international infamy.
Assange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch (Khan in the last “Star Trek” chapter) who in long white locks and with piercing blue eyes looks somewhat ethereal or other worldly, like the fair-haired elves in the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy or the calmly maniacal Julian Sands in the “Warlock” films. Cumberbatch’s Assange is a hard beast to wrap your hands around. He’s guff, arrogant, but at the same time an idealist who spends time in Africa trying to expose corrupt governments stealing money from the people and killing anyone who questions their brutish entitlements. The film’s window of insight into Assange’s mystifying persona is his early collaborator Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl who played Niki Lauda in “Rush”), who at first idolizes Assange and his mission but later has clashing ideological differences over what to do with the Pentagon papers Bradley Manning leaked to them (it was Manning who exposed himself in a chat room).
The film is directed by Bill Condon, who had notable successes with “Dream Girls” and “Gods and Monsters,” and recently has been involved in the hackneyed “Twilight” series. Condon keeps things clicking along with Twitter-brisk editing and plenty of acerbic Assange diatribes. He makes sitting at a desk and hacking away against the clock a time bomb-beating experience. As far as composition goes, the film looks great, but there’s not much insight into Assange’s past. His stories of his white hair and his long unseen son (near adulthood) seem arcane and piquant at first, but then they feel like ploys used by Assange to manipulate others. And that’s the fatal fault with “Fifth Estate.” Assange is an asshole and you can’t wait for him to get his comeuppance. The well-heeled documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney earlier this year came out with “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” which got at Assange and the WikiLeaks story more satisfactorily. What Condon was aiming for is unclear. It postures well and Cumberbatch is riveting as the media shaping reptile, but in all the plumbing of the journalistic ethic and mad dash globe hoping, there’s just no soul to sell.
— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies