When Julian Assange dismisses a film about his life as “lies,” there must surely be an enticing game afoot. But director Bill Condon’s “The Fifth Estate,” the second film this year depicting the story behind WikiLeaks and its infamous founder, is merely tepid and slightly disjointed in its portrayal of a fascinating subject and equally fascinating character. But that doesn’t hold Benedict Cumberbatch back from delivering a knockout performance as Assange.
Based on two books, "Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website" by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and "WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy" by David Leigh and Luke Harding, “The Fifth Estate” follows Assange’s creation of WikiLeaks, from his takedown of international bank Julius Baer to Bradley Manning’s infamous whistleblowing on the U.S. State Department secrets.
“The Fifth Estate” unfolds like an experiment, throwing significant events from Assange’s life, as well as his WikiLeaks partner Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), against a wall to see what sticks. Quite a bit doesn’t stick and instead churns until the script finds solid footing for brief stretches. One subplot that doesn’t work as well as it could inserts Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as State Department’s Sarah Shaw and James Boswell awkwardly depicting the fallout from Wikileaks as they scramble to remove their embedded source from a potential Mideast hot zone. It’s odd because for a brief moment, “The Fifth Estate” sophomorically becomes an espionage thriller, clashing with the techno-drama surrounding it.
What does stick -- and is actually riveting -- is the last third of the film which covers Bradley Manning’s leak of hundreds of thousand classified documents and cables and how that affects not only foreign affairs, but more specifically, journalism. This is where Condon finds his footing -- albeit a little late – as chaos erupts in the media, the U.S. government and within Assange’s inner circle. The publication of The Afghan War Logs is where the drama finally becomes interesting as Daniel and Julian ultimately come to a head, thus beginning the fall of their operation.
It’s the clash of styles that trip “The Fifth Estate.” It starts with semi-obnoxious cyber punk as Daniel and Julian admonish and break away from their tech peers. As they enter a more isolated and perilous landscape, punk is replaced by more fantastic, schizophrenic imagery, a la “A Beautiful Mind,” with dreamy and figurative locations and characters before turning into your standard espionage thriller. The styles clash as they slip from one to the other, rarely finding common ground.
Ultimately, “The Fifth Estate” becomes less about Assange’s original cause to bring transparency to governments and corporations, but more about how his solipsistic ego was completely destructive. However, one perfect moment in the film has Cumberbatch, as Assange, demonizing the very film you’re watching, dismissing it as based on a book packed with lies.
This really is the year of Cumberbatch, who has stormed America’s movie houses this year with “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “12 Years a Slave,” the upcoming “August: Osage County” and the next installment of “The Hobbit,” and his performance as Assange is reason enough to see “The Fifth Estate.” His Assange is like both sides of Frankenstein; he is half megalomaniac-- a duplicitous mad genius with tunnel vision--but then he is also the product of his creation-- a pathetic, reckless creature, a dangerous force of nature.
In his staid manner, Cumberbatch tries to humanize Assange despite a script that does its hardest to do the opposite. Josh Singer’s script does offer some sympathy though, referencing Assange’s harsh upbringing in an Australian cult, his difficulty with having any emotional connection to people and also poses the question of Assange being on the autism spectrum. But Cumberbatch reaches beyond those and offers brief glimpses of regret or acknowledges his polarizing personality with the slightest facial expressions. He is one of those rare actors who can do a lot with very little, particularly deliver a remarkable performance just through his eyes, which he does as Julian Assange.
But this is really Daniel’s story, since it’s partly based on his book. Daniel Brühl was last seen as Formula One driver Nikki Lauda in Ron Howard’s “Rush,” and here Brühl attempts to counter Cumberbatch’s dominance by delivering an eager and somewhat affable performance, but unfortunately he never escapes his co-star’s shadow.
All focus is justly put on Cumberbatch and Brühl, but the supporting cast is well received for what little they do. Geeks should be delighted to see the merging worlds of “Doctor Who,” “Downton Abbey” and “Harry Potter” with Peter Capaldi (“Doctor Who”), David Thewlis (“Potter”) and Dan Stevens (“Downton”) make up the staff of The Guardian.
“The Fifth Estate,” like many historical films, takes certain liberties in presenting a story in the most entertaining and commercial way. But for those unfamiliar with the history of WikiLeaks, “The Fifth Estate,” though disjointed but with good performances, is a decent (though Assange certainly disagrees) and broad overview of these major events.
Touchstone Pictures. MPAA Rating: R; Running time: 2 hours and 4 minutes.