As the world doesn’t seem to have quite made up its mind about Julian Assange, it seems fitting that the new film about him and the rise of Wikileaks has an ambivalence about it as well.
“The Fifth Estate” takes us inside hackers’ milieu, the personalities and news stories that blew up thanks to Wikileaks. It visits the very real consequences of Assange’s actions. But it never gets inside the man, what drives him, what justifies the arrogant self-righteousness that he built his worldview upon.
Director Bill (“Kinsey” / “Dreamgirls”) Condon dazzles us with the whirl of Assange’s crusade, following him from Africa to Europe, zipping from one trouble spot, where the release of secret documents might make a difference, to another.
In a breathless two hours, the film lets us see the man through the eyes of a new recruit and close associate. Young Euro-hacker Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl of “Rush”) is in awe of this international man of mystery, charismatic in his shock of white hair, his steely determination to set up a web site run by legions of whistle blowers, just like himself, and quoting Oscar Wilde as he does: “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Assange as a somewhat justified paranoid, a frequent flier who jets hither and yon, a ghost who is that moving target that no assassin or government can (he believes) hit. He is a man above the mayhem he creates, rarely second-guessing what he’s doing as he persuades contacts that they are just one of many thousands, that his anonymous-tip website is bullet-proof in its security.
Which was probably the attitude of the various banks and governments whose security his whistle blowers breached.
Assange sees conspiracies everywhere and has a sneering contempt for mainstream news organizations (the fourth estate) he figures Wikileaks displaces. Only nobody is noticing Wikileaks at the time Berg is recruited. That’s before the Bradley Manning cache of military and U.S. State Dept. communications come to them. That’s before the press conferences, the collaboration with the hated newspaper and magazine journalists, who sort through the raw data that Assange cavalierly and naively believed would be damning by itself, with the professional reporters providing context and some semblance of objectivity and responsibility.
And that’s before people start dying and Berg starts wondering who this wildly secretive weirdo with an obsession for control, privacy and fame really is and how big the infrastructure of the suddenly famous Wikileaks is, questioning the very notion of a “movement” that isn’t a movement at all.
Bruhl brings a youthful enthusiasm and naivete to Berg, an insider in the hacker world lured by the charisma and convinced of the rightness of their cause, but young enough to change his mind as he receives new information. Laura Linney is terrific as a State Department employee trying to do her work, frantically pulling in secret sources before they’re exposed and murdered in countries that aren’t as tolerant of whistle blowers as the West.
And the aloof, guarded Cumberbatch plays Assange as a mixture of brilliance, hucksterism, ego and naivete. He carries the baggage of an actor who plays “smart,” with a menacing edge. His character fumes at the “corporate overlords,” corrupt bankers and African dictators, but childishly lumps everyone who wants to keep secrets into the same contemptible pile.
He inspires: “Courage is contagious.” “You can spend your lie in cushy cubicles, or you can march.”
But with every revelation, from his troubled childhood to his skirt-chasing to the hair color and the stories about how it turned white, the hustler shows through and the mystery deepens.
For all the technical sparkle, Condon never quite connects all the dots about Assange and how this “revolution” that he claims he is leading is part of the zeitgeist, the global strain of anarchy that resulted in uprisings in the Middle East, the Occupy Movement, marches in Europe and the tea party in the United States.
That label, “anarchist,” might be the most loaded when considering the sagas of Manning, Edward Snowden, Assange and even the so-called “Suicide Caucus” in Congress. But it’s also the most damning. People who want to “blow it all up” rarely trouble themselves with what comes after the explosion.
THE FIFTH ESTATE
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, David Thewlis, Carice Van Houten
Directed by Bill Condon, written by Josh Singer, based on the books “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy” and “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website.” A Dreamworks release.
Running time: 2:08
MPAA rating: R for language and some violence