When a democratically elected government erects walls of secrecy around its operations, is breaching those ramparts espionage, or higher patriotism? When spy agencies have unprecedented surveillance power, should activists hold those institutions to account? Who should judge whether classified leaks are too sensitive to report? Is Julian Assange the James Bond of digital journalism, or an ego-mad Bond supervillain?
“The Fifth Estate” wrestles with such messy, imprecise moral complexities as it dramatizes the rise and ostracism of WikiLeaks founder Assange. Director Bill Condon (of “Kinsey,” “Dreamgirls” and the “Twilight” series) shows admirable ambition in tackling such a slippery character. It’s an intellectual grappling match that leaves viewers feeling worked over, disoriented and not much the wiser.
Screenwriter Josh Singer (“The West Wing”) has no idea what hacker extraordinaire Assange’s political legacy will be. What he delivered is neither a political suspense film, nor an international fugitive chase, nor a penetrating character study. Like “The Social Network” and “Jobs” before it, “The Fifth Estate’s” takeaway message is that the geek demigods shaping our future are driven, cerebral and total jerks.
The film unfolds in the two years before Assange published classified U.S. military cables about the war in Afghanistan. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the platinum-haired hacker extraordinaire as a bipolar enigma.
In one scene he seems principled and justifiably defensive under attack from his many powerful enemies. In the next he’s demagogic, imperious and erratic, turning against onetime friend Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl), a German WikiLeaks collaborator. Domscheit-Berg is presented as the wise, ethically astute Jiminy Cricket on Assange’s shoulder. His memoir, “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website,” served as the film’s backbone, which may explain why he appears so gallant.
In an effort to give the film a breaking-news zip, Condon revs every scene with manic energy. The opening montage takes us from the development of cuneiform writing through telegraphy, TV and the Internet in a rocket-sled blur. There are speed-blurred references to WikiLeaks’ early exposes, uncovering the dirty laundry of big businesses and governments around the world. It’s a thrill to see news footage of the bent bankers behind Iceland’s financial meltdown doing the perp walk.
But Condon wants us to be dazzled by clumps of binary data and online chats whipping across the screen. His boldest scenes laughably imagine WikiLeaks’ cloud-based workplace as a “Matrix”-like virtual office open to the skies, with infinite desks receding to the vanishing point. Still, you sympathize. It’s not easy to give spy-movie urgency to a film where a big action scene is a guy whipping a laptop out of his backpack.
Locations skip from Berlin to London to Reykjavik, and whenever a scene can be set in a techno-beat disco with whirly lights, it is. Dialogue is declaimed, not spoken.
As English reporter Nick Davies, who uncovered the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal, David Thewlis has mouthfuls of argle-bargle about print journalism’s sacred responsibility to protect sources, check stories and not put lives in danger. Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci play a couple of State Department diplomats who furrow their brows at Assange’s tell-all agenda.
The subtext is, “Stay alert, this is really important,” but the film is so unwieldy that details blur. “The Fifth Estate” is a cyberthriller without thrills.
THE FIFTH ESTATE
1 1/2 stars
Rated: R for language and some violence.