The Fifth Estate
Opens Fri., Oct. 18 at Majestic Bay and other theaters. Rated R. 124 minutes.
Say what you want about Julian Assange, the guy is a talented blurb writer. Since reading an early screenplay draft about his WikiLeaks adventures, Assange has fired off a series of withering one-liners about the project. One recent declaration: “The result is a geriatric snooze-fest that only the U.S. government could love.” The adjective there is particularly cruel. Accuse the movie of distortions, or demonization, or of aligning itself with the CIA—fine. But “geriatric” is the kiss of death in Hollywood. What’s worse, Assange actually has a point.
The object of Assange’s displeasure does indeed carry the whiff of, if not old age, at least a pre-millennial’s attempt to understand this newfangled Wiki-world. Whenever director Bill Condon (Kinsey, Dreamgirls) wants to convey the Wild West reach of what can happen with information on the Internet, he uses cornball visualizations: hundreds of wired desks manned by hundreds of Assanges in a warehouse with no end, or fireballs exploding across the same space. The invention looks trite, but the effort is understandable. In some ways, The Fifth Estate lines up as a movie about people sitting at laptops. Sometimes they type. Josh Singer’s script is culled from a couple of books about the WikiLeaks phenomenon, including a memoir by Daniel Domscheit-Berg—Assange’s right-hand man before they acrimoniously split. We mostly get Daniel’s perspective as the Nick Carraway to Assange’s mystifying Gatsby, a committed observer who becomes less enchanted with his white-haired hero the more he gets to know him. Daniel is played by Daniel Brühl, of the current Rush; Assange is a juicy role for Benedict Cumberbatch, the erudite scarecrow equally at ease playing classical parts or Star Trek villains. The actors are strong, if somewhat hemmed in by the real-life limitations of recent history.
For much of its first half, The Fifth Estate cranks up a well-paced chronicle of WikiLeaks and its rise to prominence. Condon aims for the vibe of a ’70s political thriller of the kind directed by Alan J. Pakula, like All the President’s Men. That’s a fine goal, but the tricky part is that Assange is here both tireless crusader and paranoid control freak—Woodward and Nixon in the same person. Issues like the future of journalism and public responsibility are dutifully stirred, but the movie keeps coming back to Assange as monster/martyr. (The film barely alludes to Assange’s alleged sexual misconduct, a discreet but curious omission explored in Alex Gibney’s recent documentary We Steal Secrets.) That obsession with personality would seem to go against the original idea of WikiLeaks as an anonymous, free-to-all resource; it’s an indication of how far The Fifth Estate is stuck in the pre-cyber mode of information.