The Fifth Estate Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Anthony Mackie. Directed by Bill Condon. Rated R. Opens Friday.
Whether WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is a principled warrior for justice and accountability or a reckless criminal who needlessly risked human lives depends on your point of view. Presumably, if you’ve read anything about Assange, or even just seen some in-depth TV-news reports about him, you have a point of view. If not, watching The Fifth Estate won’t help, as a cogent viewpoint is precisely what this exasperating docudrama sorely lacks. It’s one thing to be evenhanded; it’s another, more cowardly thing to withhold not only judgment but also anything that might conceivably sway judgment, reducing one of the new century’s most important political, journalistic and ethical quagmires to a tiresome pissing contest.
It’s not as if director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, the last two Twilight movies) and screenwriter Josh Singer (whose work in TV includes The West Wing and Fringe) are unaware of their subject’s import. Indeed, they begin with a ludicrous opening-credits sequence that races forward from the Stone Age to the present day, calling to mind the moment in Adaptation when Charlie Kaufman asks, “How did I get here?” and the movie flashes back four billion years to Earth’s initial formation. Eventually, the film settles in 2007, when Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) first meets German tech activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), and the two join forces to create a website devoted to collecting and disseminating classified documents. Whether and to what degree they should curtail their activities in order to avoid putting innocent people in danger eventually becomes a sticking point, with Domscheit-Berg serving as the increasingly agonized conscience to Assange’s vindictive crusader.
While Assange has publicly vilified The Fifth Estate, whereas Domscheit-Berg wrote one of the books upon which it was based, there’s no way to guess the nature of that schism from the film itself, which does little more than hurl as much choppily edited, techno-scored information at the screen as possible in the vain hope of creating a generic sense of urgency. Always a fascinating actor, Cumberbatch does his best to make Assange a complex personality, but he’s defeated by a script that simultaneously wants to explain the man’s fixation on good faith (via flashbacks to his childhood as a member of an Australian cult) and maintain him as an inscrutable cipher. Internal bickering among the WikiLeaks crew (also including hacker/activists played by Moritz Bleibtreu and Carice van Houten) takes precedence over questions of legality and morality, mostly because the latter are nearly impossible to dramatize. All you’re left with at the end is the self-defeating message that modern life moves too fast for us to comprehend.