Ever since WikiLeaks’ April 2010 release of “Collateral Murder,” a classified U.S. military video of an Apache helicopter slaying over a dozen people in New Baghdad, the website and its founders have been hot topics in global media. Followed less than a year later by the controversial posting of a quarter of a million U.S. embassy cables, many of them compromising confidential sources, the story of Julian Assange and his former colleague Daniel Berg has seemingly demanded the Hollywood treatment. The fact that this sensitive information came to light is exciting or terrifying, depending on the viewer, as is the potential for future such revelations. These hooks don’t necessarily mean that the story behind WikiLeaks is exciting, nor does it make its major players worth following, but those factors haven’t kept filmmakers from trying.
The latest attempt, Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, does its best to make the saga exciting and on many levels it succeeds. As the white-haired Assange, Benedict Cumberbatch disappears into the role, continuing his streak as a must-see performer. Josh Singer’s screenplay offers compelling background on the Australian’s past and grants Cumberbatch the freedom to explore the celebrity’s numerous sides in ways that news interviews never have. Seizing the benefit of scripted drama, the actor’s take is often more captivating than the real one, at least as depicted earlier this year in We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.
While Alex Gibney’s documentary relied too much on text typed on screen, Condon and Singer take a more engaging approach of hacker chats on actual computer screens, wisely incorporating them as part of a larger human drama and rarely as a scene’s centerpiece. The narrative team’s own risky crutch, however, comes in the form of a clever visual metaphor of WikiLeaks’ supposed “hundreds of volunteers” in an office. Imagining the kind of large workspace merited by such a staff, it turns out to be simply Assange and Berg (Daniel Brühl) doing the work with a lot of empty desks. Whether the core filmmaking pair or their effects team dreamed up the concept, it’s a striking one yet one of the few bursts of imagination largely lacking in the rest of the film.
Shot in a poor man’s Paul Greengrass approach, The Fifth Estate relays a dialed-back version of Captain Phillips’ docudrama style that mostly works, but also feels bland and uncommitted. The same middling qualities hold true for much of the supporting players. Though the affable trio of David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi, and Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens as The Guardian newspaper’s reps make many of WikiLeaks’ dealings with the press intriguing, the rest of the cast flounders. Usual stalwarts Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, and Anthony Mackie are sadly muted as key U.S. government employees attempting to tidy things up on their end. More disappointing is Brühl, not nearly as strong as he was in Rush, but then the story isn’t as good and his character not as interesting. Outside of Assange, though, few in this tale are.
Rated R for language and some violence.
The Fifth Estate is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.