Briefly seen in this week's release 12 YEARS A SLAVE and soon to be spotted in the ensemble drama AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, the man of the hour Benedict Cumberbatch (STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS) now takes center stage playing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the man whose outlet released tens of thousands of U.S. government and military intelligence documents that ended up revealing the names of dozens, if not hundreds, of informants' names and just generally embarrassing a whole lot of powerful people. What's interesting about Assange's story in THE FIFTH ESTATE (one of the many things) is how much of a force for good he was seen as before that leak, taking down corrupt leaders, banks and other corporations. And he certainly maintains a steady fan base even today in self-imposed exile.
In THE FIFTH ESTATE, directed by Bill Condon (GODS AND MONSTER, KINSEY), Assange is looked at through the eyes of his longtime partner (some have said WikiLeaks co-founder) Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by RUSH's Daniel Brühl), who wrote one of the two books the film is based upon. What's fascinating about Cumberbatch's performance is that it can be read many different ways at the same time.
In a single scene, Cumberbatch is capable of portraying Assange as a compassionate man of the people, a Robin Hood type who dispenses information rather than cash—but also an ego-maniacal control freak; a charmer when it comes to the ladies; and a brilliant, forward-thinking news man who has found a new way to give his readership something closer to the truth than they have ever seen before. Cumberbatch embodies them all, under an unruly mane of stringy white hair and a half-scowl to complete the picture.
While Cumberbach's performance is spot on, layered and often quite creepy, the film itself displays a gross miscalculation by attempting to play out as a thriller rather than a more appropriate docu-drama. While I'm sure Assange and company felt like they were in the midst of a thriller at times with some of the information they were given access to, it feels false to employ the trappings of a thriller with something this, and it makes the film feel false and overhyped. The story rarely slows down long enough to even bother explaining why much of what Assange is doing is significant; I guess we're just supposed to know.
The other frustrating element of THE FIFTH ESTATE is that Assange is only a character in his own story. As I mentioned, the tale is told from Daniel's point of view. And the only version of stories from Assange's life before WikiLeaks comes from Assange himself, who is a confirmed liar about many things. The film also barely mentions (only in a title card at the end of the movie) the sexual assault charges levied against him shortly after the U.S. correspondences were released. I think the consensus is that the charges were meant to discredit him, but it still seems unbalanced.
And then there are the subplots: one featuring Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney as high-level government types who are tracking Assange's leaks and feeling pretty confident he'll never get anything on them... until he does. And then their job is to pull as many operatives out of the field as they can. Again, every time the story gets sidelined like this, the movie feels phony. Anthony Mackie plays Sam Coulson, apparently the White House press secretary or someone advising him, who is pushing Tucci and Linney for answers. It's always good to see Mackie, but he adds nothing this movie but words.
More interesting perhaps are the editors of the British newspaper The Guardian, played by David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi and Dan Stevens. They seem to have better luck and chemistry than their American counterparts as they begin by mocking Assange and his start-up haven for whistleblowers, but soon they are cutting deals with WikiLeaks about its 21st century version of the Pentagon Papers.
If you want to see a more complete and less trumped-up version of many of these events than THE FIFTH ESTATE offer up, check out director Alex Gibney's documentary from earlier this year, WE STEAL SECRETS. And while I'm on the fence about the movie as a whole, I can't imagine making it through 2013 without checking out Cumberbatch's chilling performance as the man who changed the way we gather and disseminate newsworthy information, for better or worse.