As part of an exceptionally strong season of fact-based dramas on screen, “The Fifth Estate,” about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, arrives with something of a shrug. At its best, the film works as a serious showcase for its capable star, the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who delivers an eerily on-point portrayal of the enigmatic central character.
And, as a primer on the early days of WikiLeaks and its crusade for transparency and governmental and corporate accountability, “The Fifth Estate” provides useful reminders to audiences who may have come to equate the organization with Assange’s own overweening ego and strange persona.
But as a piece of filmed entertainment, “The Fifth Estate” shows why things like authorial point of view and visual sensibility are so essential in bringing such stories to life. Unlike its most obvious predecessor, “The Social Network,” this film doesn’t have much of either, and the weakness shows.
Based on books by former Assange collaborators Daniel Domscheit-Berg, David Leigh and Luke Harding, “The Fifth Estate” focuses on Assange’s relationship with Domscheit-Berg (played in the film by “Rush” star Daniel Bruhl), a computer programmer in Germany who meets the snow-haired Australian at a hackers’ conference and quickly warms to his calls for “a whole new form of social justice” by way of using encryption to protect whistleblowers.
Domscheit-Berg throws in with Assange, who has created WikiLeaks in the belief that “if you give a man a mask, he’ll tell you the truth.” And for a while, it works: In bracing sequences, “The Fifth Estate” shows Assange and Domscheit-Berg exposing powerful banks, corrupt regimes and fraudulent elections, driven by their righteous, sober-minded belief in freedom of expression and unfettered access to raw information.
The dream begins to sour with WikiLeaks’ most high-profile “gets,” the release of footage of U.S. forces killing two Reuters reporters in Iraq and a subsequent leak of sensitive State Department cables. Working with newspapers in Germany, London and the United States, Assange refuses to redact material that might have led to the death of intelligence assets.
Regardless of its on-the-one-hand-on-the-other approach, “The Fifth Estate” clearly suggests Assange has blood on his hands. Whether that’s the cost of a far higher aim or a sign of Assange’s moral arrogance is the crux of the debate that the film seeks to engage, but never fully animates.
Director Bill Condon, working from a script by Josh Singer, tries to hype the story, by way of awkward scenes of State Department officials (Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci), a gratuitous subplot involving Domscheit-Berg’s love life and a visual trope involving an empty office that winds up being clumsy and intrusive just when “The Fifth Estate” should be taut and keenly focused. (For a terrific documentary account of Assange’s career, see Alex Gibney’s “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” released earlier this year.)
As with “The Social Network,” the challenge of “The Fifth Estate” is to inject visual interest in a story that’s essentially a bunch of guys looking at computer screens — a challenge that Condon wrestles with uneven success.
What’s more, he seems fatally unsure of what he himself believes about Assange, who at one point observes that the media are far more interested in how weird he is rather than the substance of his revelations.
Ultimately “The Fifth Estate” seems guilty of the same charge, as the movie speculates on his own shifting autobiography and whether he dyes his hair. Assange may be right, he may be wrong — he may be a bit of both. Whatever is true, he deserves a sharper, more consequential movie.
R. At area theaters. Contains profanity and some violence. 124 minutes.