It is a shame, really, that under-appreciated actor Benedict Cumberbatch gives a truly inspired in what is a disappointingly uninspired film based upon the birth, brief life, and controversial decline of the website Wikileaks, a website felt by some to be somewhat of a savior of truth while regarded as others as nothing less than a traitorous and hypocritical monstrosity.
The problem with The Fifth Estate is that it not only fails to live up to the grand drama of its material, but it fails to even warrant the pre-release publicity given a letter that has been publicized in which Assange is said to have written to Cumberbatch imploring him, or perhaps cautioning him, to consider not being involved in a film that Assange apparently expected to be nothing more than a hatchet job of his work and the work of Wikileaks.
As the small group of you who will bother to see this film in a theater already know, Cumberbatch certainly wasn't persuaded by Assange's appeal and, later on down the line, issued his own video response essentially trying to assure Assange that believed his concerns to be unwarranted that he, in particular, wouldn't be so blind as to be a pawn of larger corporate interests.
In these two exchanges, you have more drama and intrigue than is contained within the just over two hour running time of The Fifth Estate, a film that is really only to be recommended for those who consider themselves diehard fans of Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch, a British actor who seems to be sweeping America in films big and small, gives a rather remarkable performance that in a better film would likely be looking at recognition come awards season. As it is, Cumberbatch will likely find himself in the running for a few Brit film awards and, perhaps, some of the other lesser awards along the way but will most likely be forgotten in most of the major awards this coming season.
While I'm sure it was an intriguing thought, this whole making a film based upon Wikileaks and Assange, it seems a bit premature given that Assange himself continues to have his own situation unresolved since he's been living inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since June 19, 2012 evading arrest as England intends to arrest then extradite him to Sweden to face sexual assault allegations while Assange's likely ultimate belief is that he will end up in the hands of the U.S. facing charges related to a series of diplomatic cables he released. Too much of the film, penned by Josh Singer, seems ripped from the already widely publicized headlines and director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Kinsey) largely avoids anything resembling a strong stance on anything about Wikileaks or Assange.
In other words, there's not only an absence of a hatchet job but an absence of an opinion.
Considering The Fifth Estate is really about the bold and controversial actions of one man's pursuit of truth at any costs, perhaps driven by both ego and his own inner moral stance, it's rather disappointing that there's nothing, at least nothing beyond Cumberbatch's performance, about the film that could be regarded as bold or controversial or even particularly interesting.
The film's story is largely told through the eyes of Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl), whose admiration for Assange's vision and conviction quickly elevated him to essentially being Assange's lieutenant and partner in truth or crime or perhaps a weaving together of the two. Wikileaks grew quickly in both esteem and controversy, a growth that made its founder, Assange, an international star for some and an international pariah for others. For much of this time, Berg was right by his side. Eventually, Berg would begin to question Assange's ethics and tactics and the the formerly strong relationship would become increasingly divisive. Along the way, however, the increasingly revealing series of "leaks" featured in The Fifth Estate make it obvious that the site, for better and worse, changed the way that information is dispensed. The film's final hour, in which the focus is on Bradley Manning's release of thousands of confidential documents, is the film's most riveting and involving as much is revealed about how it all occurred and how the chasm that had grown between Assange and Berg may have, perhaps, even fueled Assange to push even harder.
Cumberbatch's performance, which could have so easily been a caricature, is nothing short of remarkable as he captures quite nicely Assange's rather droll presentation that drips with a self-confidence that may strike you as cocky or conceited or even arrogant yet is completely impossible to ignore.
After all, how could you NOT be arrogant considering the undeniable impact of Wikileaks on governments and businesses worldwide? Cumberbatch certainly captures the arrogance, but he also captures the absolute magnetism involved and absolutely necessary within a figure such as Assange.
The Fifth Estate is at its most involving when it focuses on the relationship between Assange and Berg and, of course, during its final hour. It is less involving when we're forced to sit through ancillary storylines and conflicts that do little to advance the story such as those involving Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as a couple of State Department reps trying to deal with a potential Libyan informant. While there's nothing wrong with the performances, the ancillary storylines simply are unnecessary.
When it comes down to it, a hatchet job would have been preferable to two plus hours of headline flashing and familiar dramatics that never seems to really go anywhere. Better yet, The Fifth Estate would have been a much better film if former West Wing scribe Singer had bothered to put anything in the film truly worthy of being leaked.
Don't worry, Julian. Your secrets are still safe.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic