'Fifth Estate' lacks context

Cumberbatch, Brühl shine in movie on WikiLeaks; film falters at times.

Director Bill Condon with Benedict Cumberbatch on the set of 'The Fifth Estate.'
Director Bill Condon with Benedict Cumberbatch on the set of 'The Fifth Estate.'

Audience opinion of WikiLeaks founder and editor-in-chief Julian Assange as a hero of the people or enemy of the state doesn’t matter much to The Fifth Estate. This perplexing drama isn’t sure what to make of him either.

At times the Internet activist is portrayed as a visionary crusader against corruption and despots. Other times he’s a petulant egotist whose publish-at-all-costs mantra proves as reckless as it is liberating.

Assange is complicated and hardly the kind of polarizing figure to easily digest in one sitting.

Nevertheless, The Fifth Estate gives it a go.

The Fifth Estate

Directed by Bill Condon

Written by Josh Singer, based on two books.

A Dreamworks release, playing at Cinemark Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons.

Rated R for language and some violence.

Running time: 128 minutes.

Critic’s Rating ★★★

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, David Thewlis, Carice Van Houten

★★★★★ Outstanding; ★★★★

Very Good; ★★★ Good; ★★ Fair;

★ Poor

Our first glimpse of Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is him holding court at a press conference during the height of his fame and power as a conduit of classified U.S. military documents and embarrassing diplomatic cables made public in 2010 through his WikiLeaks Web site. This moment doesn’t matter much to The Fifth Estate.

It’s how Assange arrived at this point that does.

Years before he commanded global attention, the white-haired Australian was a less-polished, unkempt online crusader selling his concept for WikiLeaks to a small group of disinterested but polite activists at a hacker convention. It would be a Web site devoted to exposing injustice and corruption by governments, businesses, organizations, and individuals by offering anonymity to anyone willing to share secrets and damning information.

Assange was a visionary of little means and might, yet he already had a groupie in Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl), a hacker with the like-minded dream of sweeping institutional change through transparency and whistle-blowing. The two fall in with each other, and WikiLeaks is soon up and running.

Maintaining the site, however, will be a costly and risky endeavor — one too big for one and not big enough for the other.

The rift begins on a small scale as Assange questions Berg over a published interview in which Berg is credited as cofounder of WikiLeaks, a title Assange curtly dismisses. The petty jealousies simmer at various stages in WikiLeaks' growth until the anger boils over during the Cablegate crisis.

The attention given to the whistle-blowing site fully asserts WikiLeaks as the vanguard of a new kind of power-to-the-people journalism, one without rules or restrictions, and media outlets are clamoring to be part of it.

An editor at the Guardian in London, played by David Thewlis, refers to this evolving media crusade as "the fifth estate," a rabid watchdog of the fourth estate — traditional free press — now grown dormant and lazy.

Assange soaks up the effusive praise and status as a major player courted by print journalism's leading bastions, and he pushes to get the leaked documents online in unedited form. This troubles Berg, who is concerned for the collateral individuals named in the Cablegate leaks. He wants all names and any possible clues to identities redacted from the thousands of pages before the documents are released. Assange says he'll handle it but never does.

To relate the full impact of those leaks, The Fifth Estate provides the other side's point of view in the unfolding drama: the fallout to U.S State Department officials (Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci) and one particular operative in the Middle East, including his dangerous race to escape the country before his leaders learn of his affiliation with the United States.

The movie tells a complicated story, and director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, the final two Twilight films) does his part in moving the film along with flashy camera work and conceptual sequences of journalism without barriers. It all looks pretty, but what's missing is the substance of what's happening: activist journalism armed with secretive information from shadowy whistle-blowers and unshackled from accountability. And who watches the watchdog's watchdog? The film never hazards a guess.

Despite a glaring lack of context, the movie succeeds on the strength of its principal players.

Cumberbatch's Assange is a cult of personality as big and small as the moment requires. It's a commanding performance that, like much of the film, blurs honest biography and dramatic license and rattles our perception of the truth.

Every bit the onscreen equal to Cumberbatch is Brühl, in his second biographical film role in a month, having previously starred as Austrian Formula One driver Niki Lauda in Rush.

At first the equal to Assange in his determination and willingness to sacrifice any shred of a normal life to advance WikiLeaks and the cause, Berg grows into the voice of reason to the publish-or-perish madness. By film's end he is the counter to Assange's ballooning self-regard and indifference to the incidental casualties of his cause. That Berg should be treated so favorably shouldn't come as a surprise since The Fifth Estate is in part based on his tell-all book, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website.

Assange has voiced his displeasure over the film. He's even afforded a moment to air his grievances with the film via Cumberbatch still in character, who derides any attempt at making a movie about WikiLeaks.

More than a rebuttal, the epilogue is a caveat to remind us that Assange is now stranded in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he has been granted diplomatic asylum, even as he faces arrest and extradition to Sweden regarding a sexual assault case.

The film's singular take-away message would seem to be that absolute power corrupts absolutely, even to those sworn to expose it.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.