Ripping the story from the headlines seems to be the most compelling action in “The Fifth Estate,” a fictionalization of WikiLeaks’ history from director Bill Condon and writer Josh Singer. The film feels irrelevant in the wake of Alex Gibney’s documentary “We Steal Secrets,” a more thrilling and intelligent treatment of these people and ideas that does not even have to resort to fictionalization or melodrama.
The film begins modestly (ha!) with a brief history of worldwide communications, from hieroglyphs to Guttenberg’s printing press all the way to the iPad newsstand. Then, it proceeds to cut between the WikiLeaks team led by anarchist Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the U.S. government’s response to their destabilizing revelations.
It might have been better off just focusing on its titular estate rather than including subplots involving the second (government) and fourth (press) estates; the tension between the old guard of reporting at institutions like The Guardian and the WikiLeaks “hacktivist” style of citizen journalism feels like a topic for an entirely different film. Sure, this is an excuse to bring in an ensemble of supporting characters portrayed by talented actors like Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Mackie, Peter Capaldi, and David Thewlis, these accomplished thespians are unable to do much to elevate the material.
As Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg take steps to increase worldwide transparency, their tendency to think more about the information and less about the people leads to conflict. Plenty of innocent people are taken as collateral damage by WikiLeaks, and their servers offer flimsy protection for the whistleblowers who dare to release sensitive information. Assange’s personality gets in the way of the story he pushes – a worry that seems to inspire caution in the next major leaker, Edward Snowden, as shown in Laura Poitras’ documentary “Citizenfour.”
Condon uneasily balances Singer’s script that cannot decide whether to focus on who they are or what they did. For the former, at least Cumberbatch nails Assange’s vocal cadences. For the latter, though, “The Fifth Estate” cannot even turn one of the most important events of the decade into compelling cinema. Even with one of the newest tricks in the book, adding an M83 song for dramatic impact, the action falls flat.
When the film awkwardly acknowledges its own shortcomings in its odd finale, it feels almost like the creative team saying sorry. Apology accepted, I guess? C /