Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Anthony Mackie
Directed by: Bill Condon (“The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Parts 1 and 2”)
Written by: Josh Singer (debut)
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been no stranger to the spotlight in recent years. Seizing seemingly every opportunity he has to strip away the layers of secrecy from some of the world’s most powerful institutions, Assange has, for better or worse, personally embodied WikiLeaks’ truth-telling mission. Though the saga is still very much ongoing, Hollywood has churned out a dramatization of the birth, growth, and prominence of Wikileaks and its eccentric founder in “The Fifth Estate.”
With an agenda of releasing the world’s most tightly guarded secrets, computer hacker Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) forms WikiLeaks, a website which anonymous whistleblowers can upload information and reveal dark truths about governments and corporations to anyone who desires them. In an effort to grow, Assange teams up with Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) who shares his values in the freedom of information. After years of substantial leaks, the two find themselves sitting on one of the biggest information leaks in history. From there, it’s a battle of opposing views on whether releasing sensitive information is worth the potential endangerment of the lives of thousands of people.
The character of Assange proves to be fertile ground for Cumberbatch. He absorbs the role and is by far the strongest element of the film. He commands the screen every second he appears and effectively conveys the larger-than-life persona that Assange has cultivated, all while getting details such as his voice down to perfection. Bruhl is also strong as Daniel Berg, serving as somewhat of a moral compass to the WikiLeaks mission. Unfortunately, his character is bogged down by an unsatisfying romantic plot.
“The Fifth Estate” features a rather kinetic storytelling device that is scatterbrained and unnecessarily confusing. Besides globe jumping, the narrative of Assange is regularly interrupted by the introduction of smaller storylines and characters. Further complicating things is a subpar script that most frequently finds the Assange character speaking in maxims without providing any true substance behind his insistence on the freedom of information. There is also a visual device in the film that fails in its execution where this fantastical idea of Assange running the organization by himself materializes into scenes where Assange is found behind various nameplates in a warehouse of desks.
There will undoubtedly be a lot of comparisons to another WikiLeaks film that has been released this year, Alex Gibney’s documentary “We Steal Secrets.” As another exhaustive look at Assange through the years, Gibney’s film hit its most interesting points when touching on the topics of the leaks of the U.S. military bombing of civilians by Bradley Manning (now known as Chelsea) and the subsequent Afghan War Logs, the name given to the biggest U.S. military intelligence leak to date. “The Fifth Estate” barely touches on the fascinating look at Manning and his motives, and also ignores Assange’s accusations of sexual assault, the main reason that he currently remains sequestered in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. It is no surprise that the most engaging and riveting sections of “The Fifth Estate” come in the wake of the release of the Afghan War Logs, which makes the decision to devote such a small section of the film to it even more puzzling.
The debate on the morality and stance on WikiLeaks and the war on information is a divisive one, and one that continues to this day. Regardless of your stance, the details of the sources of the leaks are fascinating topics that this film merely glosses over. “The Fifth Estate” strives to get into the motives, ego, and eccentricities of Assange but never does. Cumberbatch is fantastic here, but those looking for true insight and the full story of Assange and WikiLeaks are better off searching out the documentary instead.