As the world hasn’t quite made up its mind about Julian Assange, it seems fitting that the new film about him and the rise of WikiLeaks has an ambivalence about it as well.
“The Fifth Estate” takes us inside hackers’ milieu and the personalities and news stories that blew up because of WikiLeaks. It visits the very real consequences of Assange’s actions. But it never gets inside the man, what drives him, what justifies the arrogant self-righteousness upon which he built his worldview.
Director Bill Condon (“Kinsey,” “Dreamgirls”) dazzles us with the whirl of Assange’s crusade, following him from Africa to Europe, zipping from one troubled spot, where the release of secret documents might make a difference, to another.
In a breathless two hours, the film lets us see the man through the eyes of a new recruit and close associate. Young Euro-hacker Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brhl of “Rush”) is in awe of this international man of mystery, charismatic in his shock of white hair and steely determination to set up a website run by legions of whistle blowers.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Assange as a somewhat justified paranoid, a frequent flier who jets hither and yon, a ghost who is that moving target that no assassin or government can (he believes) hit. He is a man above the mayhem he creates, rarely second-guessing what he’s doing as he persuades contacts that they are just one of many thousands, that his anonymous-tip website is bullet-proof in its security.
Assange sees conspiracies everywhere and has a sneering contempt for mainstream news organizations (the fourth estate) he believes WikiLeaks displaces. Only nobody is noticing WikiLeaks at the time Domscheit-Berg is recruited. That’s before the Bradley Manning cache of military and U.S. State Department communications come to them. That’s before the news conferences, the collaboration with the hated newspaper and magazine journalists.
Brhl brings a youthful enthusiasm and naivete to Domscheit-Berg, an insider in the hacker world lured by Assange’s charisma and convinced of the rightness of their cause, but headstrong enough to change his mind as he receives new information. Laura Linney is terrific as a State Department employee trying to do her work, frantically pulling in secret sources before they’re exposed and murdered in countries that aren’t as tolerant of whistle blowers as the West.
And the aloof, guarded Cumberbatch plays Assange as a mixture of brilliance, hucksterism, ego and naivete. He carries the baggage of an actor who plays “smart” with a menacing edge. His character fumes at the “corporate overlords,” corrupt bankers and African dictators, but childishly lumps everyone who wants to keep secrets into the same contemptible pile.
For all the technical sparkle, Condon never quite connects all the dots about Assange and how this “revolution” that he claims he is leading is part of the global strain of anarchy that resulted in uprisings in the Middle East, the Occupy Movement, marches in Europe and the tea party in the United States.