Julian Assange is certainly one of the most interesting public figures of out time, and certainly there could be no better choice to play this flawed, complex vessel in a narrative feature based on his adventures on the electronic frontier than Benedict Cumberbatch. Alternately, or perhaps simultaneously, narcissistic and idealistic, diligent and careless, impartial and petty, Assange, via his creation, Wikileaks, has changed the game when it comes to what journalism means in the digital age. It is a shame that the film based on his life is also such a contradiction . Focused and nebulous, cluttered and superficial, powered by visceral performances and a script that, like Wikileaks itself, refuses to be edited, it is a profound disappointment when it could have been instead wonderfully profound.
Starting near the end, when top secret United States government document are about to be published electronically by three of the world’s major newspapers, it then winds backwards to the early days of Assange, when he got no respect from his hacking peers, but wowed Daniel, a techie with stars in his eyes over the sensitive Swiss banking documents Assange eventually swipes and uploads to the internet. Switch to Anthony Mackie as a government functionary dismissing the importance of Wikileaks. Switch to an uncomfortable dinner with Daniel’s parents where Assange behaves with his usual bizarre affect. Switch to newspaper types debating the meaning of the new medial. Switch to an Idelandic journalist broadcasting her desire to buy Assange a drink before joining him in releasing a damning bit of military footage showing American pilots gunning down Reuters reporters and a few innocent civilians. Switch and switch and switch. Motion is not progress, and jump cuts are not storytelling.
Cumberbatch embraces the contradictions while still creating a mystery as to the inner workings of this gadfly bent on bringing transparency to the world, if not to his own history. With a strand, or several, of greasy white hair falling decisively over eyes with an arrogantly mischievous twinkle gleaming from them, Cumberbatch nails the attitude as well as the accent, the exasperation with the world at large and the easy, instant intimacy with those Assange manipulates into his circle. The charisma is palpable, as is the indefinable quality of something being not quite right with Mr. Assange. As Daniel, his most loyal acolyte, Daniel Bruhl is equally good, balancing the arrogance with a passionate and childlike hero-worship for someone who does what Daniel can only dream of accomplishing, until, as in all proper cautionary tales, the idol is revealed to have those pesky feet of clay.
There were many way to go with the telling of how Wikileaks spoke its truth to power, all of the valid, all of them interesting, and THE FIFTH ESTATE has chosen to use most, if not all of them. The result is a scattershot effort that refuses to allow us to effectively invest in any of them. The troubled childhood gets the psychological bio treatment before segueing uncertainly into Daniel fighting with his girlfriend (Alicia Vikander) over how much time Daniel is spending on getting secret documents out into the world. Dinner gets cold, and so does the not uninteresting story of how one man can set up a virtual network that can take down corporations and governments with vast resources of money and talent.
The aside into the real-world consequences of leaking classified documents is also not uninteresting, with State Department functionary Laura Linney debating with her peers just how dangerous Wikileaks is, before being sucked into a subplot that trivializes the issue into a few disjointed moments plopped into the other stories. That one of the plops involves the very blonde Linney meeting a source in Tripoli café, and speaking English to him surrounded by suspicious eyes is a glaring example of the underthinking involved. Blonde, female, speaking English in a patently traditional café frequented only by locals of the masculine persuasion, what seasoned government pro such as Linney is portraying would make such a rookie mistake?
For the debate over freedom of speech versus Big Brother, we have David Thewlis making speeches, not ineffectively, as the film rambles on the way Assange and Daniel do in a sequence wherein they jaunt around Europe for reasons that are never explained beyond the opportunity for the pair to drink beer and accumulate mileage. In a visual medium where it is better to show than explain, it is also emblematic of where the film falls down in that respect, too. Exposition is inserted with such a lack of finesse that is stalls the action, rather than speeds it along, and a conceit of superimposing phrases over the action, and of placing Assange in a metaphorical newsroom are both done with a tentativeness bordering on the nervous.
One is left feeling sympathy for director Bill Condon, an actor’s director highly in tune with the characters he is bringing to life. Alas, he, like his actors, are saddled with what amounts to a highlight reel of recent history. Could it be that we are all too close to the events to be able to sort it out into a solid narrative? Such are the good intentions here that I want to give some benefit of the doubt, even as I can’t help but harp on its failings.
Where THE FIFTH ESTATE is superficial,WE STEAL SECRETS: THE STORY OF WIKILEAKS, the documentary by Alex Gibney, is anything but. Suspenseful, intriguing, ingeniously constructed and boasting a bold visual approach with which THE FIFTH ESTATE merely toys, it covers the same territory yet never lets itself be bogged down in details that detract from its impact.