Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange
Daniel Brühl as Daniel Domscheit-Berg
Alicia Vikander as Anke
Anthony Mackie as Sam Coulson
Stanley Tucci as James Boswell
Carice van Houten as Birgitta Jónsdóttir
Peter Capaldi as Alan Rusbridger
Laura Linney as Sarah Shaw
David Thewlis as Nick Davies
Dan Stevens as Ian Katz
Moritz Bleibtreu as Marcus
Jamie Blackley as Ziggy
Hera Hilmar as Wikileaks Staffer
Jeany Spark as Wired Reporter
Directed by Bill Condon
Programmer Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has spent many years creating a secure database where whistleblowers can privately upload information and documents, something that he in turn uses to fuel his news site, WikiLeaks. Two years into its obscure attempt to seek out the truth along with his partner Daniel (Daniel Brühl), Assange gets his hands on thousands of military documents he publishes through key print newspapers in the U.S., England and Germany causing WikiLeaks to explode and Assange to gain instant notoriety.
Director Bill Condon is no stranger to the art of the biopic having written and directed two of the best, “Gods and Monsters” and “Kinsey,” and considering the timeliness of “The Fifth Estate’s” topical protagonist (of sorts), it’s no surprise he might want to revisit that territory and even try to reinvent it somewhat for his first post-“Twilight” film.
Following a title sequence that recaps a fairly robust history of journalism, Bill Condon’s fairly biased portrait of the hacker journalist, working from Josh Singer’s adaptation of Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s book “Inside WikiLeaks,” tries its hardest to avoid the normal pitfalls of biographical filmmaking but ends up falling into numerous others.
From the get-go, it’s hard not to think that Condon was basically trying to create his own version of “The Social Network,” which makes some sense due to the main character’s connections to technology. Much of the early interactions between Julian and Daniel are done via texts and online chats, which certainly allows for some interesting visuals, but once you realize what’s going on, it quickly becomes obvious why this story doesn’t work nearly as well.
The one thing Condon’s film has going for it is the fantastic portrayal of Assange by Cumberbatch, a British actor who has done so many similar roles playing uptight and neurotic individuals that he ably loses himself in this role merely by sporting Assange’s trademark long white hair and Aussie accent. Assange is certainly a strange character, one who isn’t necessarily likable the way he’s depicted here as he constantly lies and manipulates those around him, particularly Daniel. As impressive as Cumberbatch is at embodying this character, it’s not something that can maintain an entire movie, which is why the focus ends up shifting to other characters.
Because so few people had heard of Assange before the leak of the military papers, it would have been nice for the film to try to get into some of his backstory we don’t know in order to try and understand him. Except that most of what we learn about him is through the filter of Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a computer ace who is pulled into Assange’s circle of trust fairly early on, making it obvious he never really got too much of his own insight into his creative partner. Because of that, the film eventually becomes more Daniel’s story and while Bruhl is more than up for carrying the film, seeing him play such a non-flashy role following his incredible turn as Niki Lauda in “Rush” is somewhat disappointing.
Unfortunately, the last half of the movie is also when we get to the part of the story most of us will already know and that part of the movie, while it feels the most factual and truthful, is also where the film turns into a needless dramatization. It also creates an uneven structure that has it cutting away from Assange and Berg, the core of the film, to show how various factions of the CIA and the Guardian react to Assange’s form of journalism and the aftermath of releasing the military papers. Condon certainly found a solid group of actors to play these extraneous characters, but after establishing that the movie is about the interesting relationship between Julian and Daniel, trying to then introduce new elements ends up backfiring.
Carter Burwell provides an uncharacteristically “techno” soundtrack, again obviously trying to emulate what Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross brought to “The Social Network.” Other than the intriguing notion of the composer doing something different to help Condon’s vision, it’s not something that feels more than just a novelty, much like Assange himself.
The Bottom Line:
“The Fifth Estate” isn’t necessarily a bad movie, but it will hold infinitely more interest for those already intrigued by Assange’s activities than those trying to learn more about WikiLeaks and its origins. It also answers very few of the tougher questions people might have about Assange in any sort of way that feels believable.