When I arrived at the screening for The Fifth Estate, there was a small knot of wild-eyed people hovering around outside, pushing flyers that to convince me that the film is a propagandistic, anti-Assange, WikiLeaks-bashing hack job. I refrained from asking, "have you actually seen the film?"
Because: The Fifth Estate is nothing of the kind.
In fact, it probably would benefit from having enough passion and guts to take a stand, even a wrongheaded one. But instead, director Bill Condon (Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Dreamgirls) appears to have been aiming for something to the bland side of "admirable." What he ends up with is a mushy, middle-of-the-road, low-energy profile which sacrifices an engaging storyline and challenging themes for alleged "fair and balanced." The result is not a newsy feeling documentary about a whistleblower website and its founder, but that slightly wooden feeling that comes from stilted re-creations.
What's missing is personality—which is a surprising considering the central character spills over with "personality." Love him or hate him, Australian hacktivist Julian Assange is one of the more fascinating public figures to emerge in the digital era. Even if he is the creepy jerk he has been accused of being (in 2010, he faced multiple rape charges in Sweden), his affronting personality also has carried to the media forefront a bundle of interesting questions about online ethics and morals. Whether you believe that WikiLeaks is right or wrong, there is no denying Assange has truly lived the 21st century adage that one person with a laptop can change the world.
And while The Fifth Estate makes it plain that WikiLeaks was, at least at the beginning, very much the work of Assange alone, the film cannot decide whether it wants to be about Assange as a driving force—and what drove him—or the power that WikiLeaks presents. Ultimately, in failing to grab hold of the inherent drama and the characters, Condon succeeds in achieving something I would have said was impossible: both neutralizing Assange's character, and also demagnetizing the incredible screen presence of Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Assange.
There is a brief flicker at the film's opening scenes, which capture the tumult of a 2007 conference in Berlin, when Cumberbatch's Assange bullies his way to the podium. The scene sets the tone for an antihero; an asshole, sure, but one who wants to change the world for the better.
But as the film and storyline moves forward to 2010—and the Bradley Manning documents—those powerful contradictions largely vanish. For long stretches, it feels as if Assange is absent, replaced with outlier characters such as the fuming editor for the Guardian and a fretting State Department official—neither who provide enough drama or interest to portray the very real sense of opportunity-slash-danger that WikiLeaks presents. Really, this whole affair was ripe for some good old-fashioned melodrama, and it fails to grab even the low hanging fruit.
The Fifth Estate
dir. Bill Condon
Opens Friday, Oct. 18