Since The Fifth Estate is the second movie this year — after Alex Gibney's documentary We Steal Secrets — to profile WikiLeaks and its guiding light, Julian Assange, we have to ask whether it's bringing anything new to the discussion.
"Discussion," because the life and times of the Australian-born international journalist/provocateur Assange and his monumentally influential newsgathering organization are really more of an ongoing debate than a cinematic narrative. Filmmaker Bill Condon, working from a screenplay that collates two books on the subject — one by former WikiLeaks insider Daniel Domscheit-Berg, the other by reporters David Leigh and Luke Harding — does his best to tie up one of the world's most complicated issues in a neat, digestible package. He fails (almost anyone would fail), but does so in a way that arguably segues the riddle of Assange, the quintessential "international man of mystery," into the realm of such questions as: Who owns the truth? and: Which is more powerful, the state or the people?
Assange, played as an adult by character actor Benedict Cumberbatch (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Atonement), is revealed to be a loner with a grudge against authority figures, dating from his childhood. Through the words of one of his earliest comrades, German techno-activist Domscheit-Berg (portrayed by actor Daniel Brühl from Rush), we learn that Assange was raised in a cult and obliged to dye his hair white like the other cultists. From there the story fast-forwards to that day in 2007 in Berlin when Berg — before he marries his skeptical girlfriend Anke Domscheit (Alicia Vikander) — first met Assange at a hackers' convention. Until then, WikiLeaks, later described as "a huge media empire that's accountable to no one," was one solitary, restless man with a penchant for outing secrets. It was as if he had sprung from underneath a Melbourne shrub determined to use the power of the Internet to bring down anyone — banks, armed forces, governments — who betrays the public trust, like some sort of white-haired magic gnome.
Director Condon, a workmanlike mover of people in such mismatched projects as Kinsey, Dreamgirls, and two of the Twilight films, huffs and puffs along in his subject's wake, relying on screen-capture montages to replicate the blizzard of damaging data Assange unleashes. WikiLeaks staffers are not the golden merry pranksters of The Social Network's Facebook. For one thing, American and Russian spies are stalking them. The "Collateral Murder" video and the Afghan War Logs are matters of life and death for sources and the subjects of top-secret memos. Nervous US State Department officials Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney) and James Boswell (Stanley Tucci) would be overjoyed if Assange were to suddenly disappear. On the other hand, muckraking reporters like the UK Guardian's Nick Davies (David Thewlis) view Assange as an inspiration. Imagine if all those bastards who have been getting away with murder were finally made to pay. Leakers and whistleblowers all over the world throng to WikiLeaks.
Cumberbatch brings to his role the combination of a revolutionary's solemn zeal and an essential quixotic whimsicality. In some sense, Assange "is" in the same way as a movie star or a religious figure — the fact that he exists and performs wonders justifies every believer's expectations, despite the dawning realization that anyone, if he or she wants to, can be his or her own WikiLeaks. Brühl's Domscheit-Berg, seduced then abandoned then re-upped and finally fed up, functions as the necessary lens through which we can see beyond Assange's aura. Unlike Assange, Domscheit-Berg permits himself doubts about the mission at hand. He and WikiLeaks ally Marcus (Moritz Bleibtreu) are finally afraid of their project's implications, and all too aware of Assange's human failings. The movie runs out of gas but the news story, the only one that WikiLeaks can't report, the one about a whistleblower in front of every computer screen, has legs that won't quit. One day we'll probably have the chance to attend a WikiLeaks film festival and compare how various filmmakers have treated the phenomenon. The impulse to tell the truth is bigger than two Hollywood movies.