At its best, The Fifth Estate manages to establish a concise narrative through-line to the creation of whistleblower website WikiLeaks and its embattled, white-haired founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch).
It's not an easy story to tell, given the schismatic nature of the story and its attendant technological details. The heavy lifting falls to Assange's former collaborator and former friend Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brºhl). Berg acts as a kind of tour guide to both the formation of WikiLeaks and to the psyche of Assange, which here traverses from journalistic idealist to messianic paranoid.
Benedict Cumberbatch is ideally cast in this regard: his Assange isn't so far removed from the actor's excellent portrayal of Sherlock Holmes as a bipolar seeker of truth with lax social skills.
Director Richard Condon (Kinsey), working from an adaptation of Berg's memoir Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website, first delivers a success story. Assange is a self-described citizen journalist who circumvents the agendas and compromises of mainstream media by simply offering a safe haven to whistleblowers: an online publication where their identities will be protected by walls of impenetrable data.
Assange gleefully exposes the secrets of others but he is protective of his own, including the fact that the website's supposed army of volunteers, was, outside of Berg, actually just Assange.
But the organization does grow after a series of triumphs that include exposing the criminal practices of a Swiss bank, publishing the secret membership of Britain's neo-Nazi British National Party and the grisly U.S. military takedown of unarmed Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters photographers, shot on video. These are victories that send mainstream news-gatherers such as the Guardian and the New York Times playing catch-up.
With the growth of WikiLeaks comes an uptick in Assange's arrogance, to the extent that the movie starts to resemble David Fincher's The Social Network, another story of a techno-geek afflicted by an infinitely expanding hubris.
Here, that arrogance manifests itself when Assange comes into possession of Pte. Bradley Manning's famous leak of reams of war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a quarter-million diplomatic cables that had the potential to endanger informants all over the globe. Assange is eager to publish the information without redacting the names, a decision that puts him on a collision course with both Berg and the U.S. government, here sympathetically represented by Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as puckish State Department officials.
Their presence here may help illustrate the deeper ramifications of Assange's whistleblowing exploits, but it still feels like a narrative lamprey affixed to the plot -- as if the U.S. government demanded equal time to the WikiLeaks story and got it.
If only Condon could have told this story as elegantly as Fincher essayed the not-dissimilar story of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. But at its worst, the human story behind WikiLeaks is crowded out by frantic, flashy visuals depicting data flow to a techno beat. (It's like The Matrix, in which the roles of both Neo and Agent Smith are filled by Julian Assange.)
After toiling for so long on the Twilight series, one fears Condon may have gotten into the bad habit of playing to the kids.