Film Review: The Fifth Estate

The rise and fall of WikiLeaks, explained by the people who helped destroy it.

Nothing if not timely, The Fifth Estate charts the impact on the world of WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. Adopting the breathless style of The Social Network, the movie pretends to take viewers behind the scenes as Assange and his cohorts expose embarrassing government secrets. Some critics will be taken in by The Fifth Estate's trendy visuals and empty insights, but moviegoers will quickly recognize this as trumped-up Hollywood hokum.

Much of the plot of The Fifth Estate concerns a bromance between the commanding Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his second-in-command, the nerd acolyte Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl). There's no sexual subtext per se, but the domineering Assange takes delight in controlling the weak Daniel, chasing off his girlfriend Anke (Alicia Vikander) and giving him menial chores.

The rest of the movie documents some of the WikiLeaks breakthroughs, concentrating on the release of hundreds of thousands of State Department cables about the Middle East. This leads to a weak, largely irrelevant subplot about fictionalized State Department diplomats played by Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci. In what look like outtakes from "The West Wing," they sit around complaining about how Assange has ruined their careers—and not their own dubious choices and cover-ups.

Director Bill Condon piles on dissolves, split-screens, gaudy graphics and thunderous rock, but all the effects in the world can't disguise the fact that for a lot of the movie we're basically watching geeks tapping on keyboards. Tobias Schliessler's lurching, jittery cinematography is a distraction, as is Virginia Katz's manic editing.

The movie's concept of how the Internet works is laughably out of touch, just like Hollywood movies about hippies a generation ago. The Fifth Estate keeps insisting that Assange and his followers are in peril, that installing a server or buying a cell-phone are somehow dangerous undertakings. Ironically, the material with the strongest impact is the unedited surveillance footage that WikiLeaks helped publicize.

Cumberbatch plays Assange as a prickly, deceitful narcissist whose thirst for fame sabotages his work. It's a convincing performance, but clearly one-sided. Apart from Brühl, who brings out the toady in Domscheit-Berg, the cast is mostly there to deliver exposition and stare open-mouthed at monitors.

As Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden have learned, the real danger facing whistleblowers comes from an establishment intent on silencing them. The Fifth Estate plays a similar game, dismissing Assange's work by attacking his character. Assange is mean to Daniel's parents. He takes all the credit at news conferences. He won't listen to colleagues. By seeing him as a wacko, we can ignore the truths he helped reveal.

The real shame here is a press that made a fortune from Assange, only to turn on him. The Fifth Estate compounds this betrayal, in effect giving the same people who let WikiLeaks fail another chance to crucify Assange, all the while washing their hands of his fate. Assange may be a creep, but he didn't wage war on Iraq, or try to cover up the deaths of innocent civilians.