Irony of ironies – the much-anticipated “WikiLeaks Movie,” which dramatizes the inception of an organization responsible for some the most incendiary and controversial information leaks in recent history, turns out to be a rote, by-the-numbers thriller. The Fifth Estate, director Bill Condon’s re-entry into the land of serious filmmaking (after a psychotropic stint on the Twilight saga), is simultaneously at great pains to illuminate a “new era” of journalistic activism and at the mercy of its own very “old era” style of conventional docudrama with a didactic kicker. I didn’t learn anything new about WikiLeaks or its infamous standard-bearer, Julian Assange, though I did leave with firm confidence of one thing: I am the Fifth Estate!
I know because the film told me so… again and again. The title refers to a new level of journalistic engagement, one that goes beyond the mainstream press (traditionally referred to as “The Fourth Estate”) to push for increased transparency and accountability from the powers-that-be. It’s a valid reference with meaning implicit enough that the film doesn’t need to explicate it for the audience time and again, in one impassioned speech after another, like an inspirational recruitment video. But, alas, it does.
Yet, the film is also an investigative pot-boiler that reveals its chief inspiration as an emperor with no clothes. In an uneasy blending of tones, The Fifth Estate is at once a cautionary account of Assange’s duplicitous efforts to expose the powerful, and a polemic aiming to spur audience members to expose the powerful… but, ya know, just leave the duplicitous part out of it. Admire Assange’s goals but frown upon his methods. Do what he would do, but just not how he did it. It’s a message meant to be complicated, but it ends up coming off as contradictory.
Not to say that WikiLeaks is an enterprise to be swiftly and definitively judged, or that Assange should be easily dismissed. The film is accurate to suggest the murky ambivalence with which many react to its subject, an ambivalence so murky, in fact, that Condon can’t really probe deep enough to deliver a compelling narrative. Josh Singer’s screenplay is constantly hedging between scathing and commendatory, and as a result the film never reaches an engaging momentum in one direction or the other. Similarly, because it insists on depicting Assange, played very well by Benedict Cumberbatch, as both charming and paranoid, controlled yet unhinged, he remains a question mark in the least intriguing way. From one scene to the next, the guy’s mood and manner shifts from one cryptic state to the next, so we’re never allowed to be drawn into his web in a way we should if we’re going to connect with this story.
We’re certainly intended to, though, much as Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) does when he first encounters Assange, at some computer hacker convention that is styled as a rave, though all of the “partiers” are fussbudgets. Berg, who works a humdrum job but yearns to be a rebel, is attracted to Assange’s lofty goals and lofty language. He speechifies even in everyday conversation, speaking of revealing important news to the public, holding the rich and powerful accountable, and protecting those brave souls who are willing to blow the proverbial whistle. The two form a partnership based on those trailblazing values, and the WikiLeaks “organization” (we quickly learn that Julian and Daniel are the sole members, at least at the start) jumps from one controversial situation to the next, releasing classified information and exposing corruption in corporations, regimes, countries.
These early successes are conveyed in fairly episodic fashion, in a series of sequences too lengthy and not rhythmic enough to be considered a “montage,” but not developed enough to adequately convey the passage of time in a substantive way. The film scales Assange’s house of cards fairly quickly, jumping from the bottom floor to the top and back down again, without much textual support. Certainly the intent is to maintain some of the WikiLeaks mystique, but the effect is less mystifying than just plain boring.
Cumberbatch is fabulous, though; the versatility he’s displayed in his recent string of high-profile roles is staggering, and never more apparent than it is here. And it’s nice to see Condon back in the saddle of a serious, ambitious film. Unfortunately, though, The Fifth Estate is neither as incendiary nor as revelatory as WikiLeaks itself.