Maybe it is just because Masterpiece Mystery has started airing new episodes of Sherlock, and the great detective has a hold on my brain, but while watching The Fifth Estate, I couldn’t help but be distracted by how familiar Julian Assange seemed to me. The antisocial behavior crossed with brainy brilliance, the unsavory ego infatuated with its own cleverness, the necessity of a more level sidekick to keep our anti-hero from crossing the line into total madness, even the loopy hair--Benedict Cumberbatch plays Assange as he does Sherlock Holmes, with the addition of a bucket of bleach and an Australian accent. That is not meant to slight Cumberbatch as an actor; his performance is one of the best things about The Fifth Estate, director Bill Condon’s uneven exploration of the creation of WikiLeaks. Rather, it’s just startling how similar these characters are, despite one being fictional and the other being very real and currently holed up in an Ecuadorian embassy.
The film opens with at a conference for computer hackers in Berlin, where Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl, going two for two with compelling performances in 2013 after his role in Rush) meets the Australian internet activist and WikiLeaks founder. Amazed by Assange’s ambitious mission to destroy corruption while still protecting his whistleblowing sources, Domscheit-Berg throws himself headfirst into the cause, effectively becoming Assange’s right-hand man--primarily because no one else is involved, despite Assange’s initial insistence that he has “hundreds of volunteers.” Together, the two men embark on globetrotting adventures to expose the truth, enlisting a few others along the way, and for awhile it is all high-minded excitement. Yet soon petty things, like jealousy and ego, and less petty things, like government spies, begin to cause a rift between Assange and Domscheit-Berg. It all culminates in WikiLeaks’ massive exposure of the Afghan war logs in partnership with the mainstream media, which brings the two men's differences to an explosive head.
The Fifth Estate has its share of thrills and excitement but unfortunately suffers from a clunky and heavy-handed screenplay, adapted by television veteran Josh Singer from two books: one by Domscheit-Berg, and one by two journalists from The Guardian. The film awkwardly shoves reasons to sympathize with Assange in the audience’s face as though obligated to make a halfhearted attempt to avoid controversy--ironic considering that courting controversy is something that Assange himself would never shy away from. Despite this wishy-washy mindset and some rather bad dialogue (contrary to popular belief in Hollywood, computer nerds can still talk like humans), the film does manage to elicit a lot of great performances from its actors; Cumberbatch and Bruhl’s chemistry carries a great many of the scenes. If only there weren’t so many actors involved; a subplot featuring Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie as government employees whose lives are turned upside-down by the leaks is clearly designed to show the repercussions of WikiLeaks, but ends up just feeling distracting.
The film employs some interesting visual techniques and graphics to try and spice up what are essentially a lot of scenes of people sitting intensely in front of computers, and they work for the most part, but end up adding unnecessary melodrama by the time the film reaches its climax. By the time Domscheit-Berg burns the room full of computers metaphorically standing in for WikiLeaks, meant to symbolize him sabotaging the site, the WikiLeaks saga feels less righteous and more just silly. In the end, Cumberbatch’s Sherlockian performance and the technology-influenced visuals will just leave you wondering what The Fifth Estate could have been with edgier minds behind it; perhaps those more similar to Assange himself--or at least that of Steven Moffat.
DVD SPECIAL FEATURES
The Blu-ray, standard definition and digital copy combination pack of The Fifth Estate contains some featurettes relating to the film’s music and visual trickery, as well as some trailers and TV spots.
"The Fifth Estate" is on sale January 28, 2014 and is rated R. Drama. Directed by Bill Condon. Written by Josh Singer. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, David Thewlis, Laura Linney.