The idea of a man with his own secrets making a life out of revealing those of others seems too good to be true, a narrative too operatic to actually lend itself to real life. But such is the story of Wikileaks, an organization devoted to providing a secure soapbox for whistle blowers to reveal some of the world’s biggest secrets, namely those of the US Government, while remaining completely anonymous. One would think this kind of source material translates memorably to the big screen, but The Fifth Estate comes off as a run-of-the-mill, albeit entertaining, thriller that should have been better.
The film follows the relationship of Wikileaks co-founders Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl), two brilliant programming minds who trot the globe, establishing Wikileaks as a force to be reckoned with and taking on huge, powerful corporations and governments together. But debating the morality of their ambitious creation eventually pits them against one another, dissolving their friendship to become bitter rivals. As I said, the true story writes itself beautifully.
Unfortunately, the script is slightly above film-school grade, with the film’s eccentric, polarizing figure, Julian Assange, being boiled down to spout flowery prose and deliver anecdotes about why his hair is white. Luckily, Cumberbatch’s performance is more nuanced, painting Assange as a highly intelligent, deeply disturbed revolutionary romantic who is impressively persuasive and deliberately ignorant of the far-reaching consequences of his actions. His performance does Assange justice, even if his character is antagonized in this film.
Everything else is average at best. Daniel Brühl is serviceable as Julian’s friend-turned-disciple-turned-rival, Daniel Berg, but ultimately he is not interesting enough to match wits with Cumberbatch’s Assange. The film builds to a climactic conflict that should elicit fireworks; instead, it lands with a thud.
The direction is just as yawn-inducing. Bill Condon’s camera wants to make you feel like you’re watching the next The Social Network, but Condon is no David Fincher. What The Social Network executed so well was in making people sitting at computers feel dangerous and sexy. In The Fifth Estate, the programming scenes that describe the code of the Wikileaks platform are represented as a room full of office desktops. This metaphor is utilized countless times throughout the film, and it comes off like a cheap gimmick rather than an effective visual metaphor, leaving the viewer to feel like they are watching sub-par storytelling. This carries through the film’s meta epilogue where Cumberbatch, in character as Assange, talks to the audience about his motivations as a call to arms for them to challenge the status quo. It’s too on-the-nose and implies what Condon thinks of his audience, hand-holding us through the obvious commentary we are supposed to take away from The Fifth Estate. Make no mistake– I’m being brutally critical of a totally watchable film. But I believe it’s warranted, as this Shakespearean plot deserves better. The source material is ripe for epic storytelling, regardless of how you feel about Wikileaks and its founders. The Fifth Estate comes off as a serviceable biographic drama, but will come no where close to being the best film about the subject matter.