Director Bill Condon doesn't want you to worry that his The Fifth Estate is thinking small; its opening credits move through the history of recorded communication, reaching WikiLeaks as its crowning achievement: it's a promise this biopic will tackle both its impact and its controversial founder Julian Assange.
There's no mistaking the importance of WikiLeaks on modern journalism; its mandate to release whistleblowing documents untouched has made it an instrument of enormous political clout – and a target. But as WikiLeaks is at the forefront of a sea change in news (from the solid state of paper news to the liquidity of online reportage), the operations behind it are still moving targets, and in an attempting to blend biopic with cyberpunk thriller, The Fifth Estate mostly succeeds in making you wonder what the real story is.
There are obvious sticking points: The movie's based on a book by ex-WikiLeaks spokesperson Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who manifests as an unerring white hat and against whose version of events Assange has been so vocal that he wrote Benedict Cumberbatch asking him not to make the movie, and many of the issues surrounding WikiLeaks and its founder are still clearly mid-story—including sexual misconduct complaints filed against Assange, who has since sought diplomatic asylum in London's Ecuadorian embassy—all of which contribute to a biopic that doesn't illuminate events so much as just relay them, and it hopes you'll be satisfied with suggestions like Assange championing secrets because he has so many himself.
In trying to personify this tension between privacy and knowledge, Condon uses thriller-standard cinematography broken up with visual shorthand that often skews unintentionally comedic. During a scene of the two men chatting on their computers, they VO everything, just in case; Domscheit-Berg imagines WikiLeaks as an abandoned office of infinite desks, where you know he's overworked because his imaginary self has boxes piled beside him. It's an awkward landscape, in which its two leads are unfortunately set adrift.
Cumberbatch is an able actor, and he occasionally finds a spark behind the larger-than-life grease stain Assange's legend leaves on the film. (A shot of him reacting to Domscheit-Berg's family cat becomes particularly poisonous in context.) Though with the movie so hesitant–not to come to conclusions, but even to suggest the complicated psychology involved–Cumberbatch eventually becomes a collection of tics and proto-therapy anecdotes used as documentable shorthand for a character that never emerges; a canny impression rather than the man. And Daniel Brühl, doing his level best as the enthusiastically gormless Domscheit-Berg, has even less to work with: a personality so unflaggingly goodhearted, he's practically transparent. When he crashes WikiLeaks at the movie's climax, it's naturally only for the greater good, without anything personal behind it at all. (The script is so oddly positioned that we leave WikiLeaks there, as if the shutdown had been permanent; not even the intertitles explain whether it ever rose again. Not to spoil you, but it did.)
The two leads are so noncommittally workmanlike that the film's standout performances occur by default in the supporting cast. Laura Linney, as a State Department employee, is particularly welcome, bringing more sharply-observed ambivalence to her few minutes of screen time than either of the leads get in two hours. And Alexander Siddig plays an overseas operative with whom she shares history and who finds himself in the crossfire when the Chelsea Manning documents are released; the movie's best and tensest scene is her attempt to get him across the border into Egypt before the documents can incriminate him. It's certainly a bold move, though perhaps not a wise one that, in a film that tries to explain Assange's faults by his upbringing in a cult, the two most sympathetic characters are horribly impacted by WikiLeaks policy.
The release of the Manning documents and the resulting fallout is the dramatic centerpiece of The Fifth Estate, but the film only feints at debate about the ethics of WikiLeaks, particularly about Assange's decision not to redact any names from Manning's documents before releasing them, something he claims was in line with WikiLeaks' policy of no editorial interference and others (including the Guardian editors who worked with him to break the story) claim endangered dozens of lives. It's clear there's a fascinating situation here, with difficult people hugely at odds, drunk on power beyond old-school journalistic ethics and courting the public to get things going their way; it's just a story you'd have to look elsewhere to find.
Despite the perfunctory distaste the movie seems to have for both its leads, it ends with a breathless paen to the inherent good of WikiLeaks and the work of citizen journalists of the fifth estate and an all-smarm "interview" with "Assange" dismissing his detractors, tacked on between wrap-it-up intertitles that gloss neatly over his sexual assault charges and current refugee status.
For a movie that purports to examine the complexities of one of the greatest ethical quandaries of the Internet age, it leaves you with the distinct feeling of someone covering their bases. In trying to separate the man from the mission, The Fifth Estate ends up with two boring men and a pretty muddled mission.