Although it gets off to a pretty rough start and is a bit overstuffed, Bill Condon’s somewhat fictionalized “inside WikiLeaks” drama The Fifth Estate manages to generate some thrills once it gets the dynamics of the larger than life characters out of the way. It thankfully never portrays key WikiLeaks figurehead Julian Assange as a freedom fighting saint, and between the lines there are great and at times quite thrilling points being made about what constitutes ethical journalism in a climate where most governments and corporations are seemingly unified in silence.
The film picks up in Berlin in 2007, when Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) meets Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) at a woefully underattended panel at a tech convention. Quickly, Daniel becomes enthralled by Julian’s desire to expose the injustices of the world and agrees to become his second in command while the boss traverses the globe trying to source documents and somehow save the world one line of coding at a time.
The film’s first 45 minutes are admittedly a bit of a slog, feeling a bit like watching WikiLeaks greatest hits paraded out one at a time. There’s a great deal of unnecessary style (making text visible on walls, envisioning the WikiLeaks office as a room full of Cumberbatches working furiously at individual desks) cribbed from any number of less inventive techno-thrillers, and the dialogue in Josh Singer’s screenplay is sometimes maddeningly on-the-nose in terms of obviousness. It’s really only redeemed early on by Bruhl, who remains the film’s one constant, delivering a sympathetic and nuanced performance as a sceptical idealist. Berg’s man of conviction, but with a deeper sense of ethics than his boss is wisely made the audience surrogate, and that connection sells the early going.
But then, once the film gets around to the still high profile case of Bradley Manning and the leaking of numerous classified documents and communications from the Afghan War in 2010, things get really exciting. Condon (Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls, the Twilight: Breaking Dawn films) does away with all the early shorthand techniques in favour of a straight-up thriller and cat and mouse game between Daniel and Julian. It’s vastly more entertaining to watch, and doesn’t ever feel like the needless regurgitation of facts one could glean from a different site with the prefix Wiki in front of it. The pace quickens and the characters are finally allowed to be fleshed out instead of merely existing because they were important modern historical figures. Daniel’s desire to protect the identity of potential lives put at risk by the publishing of the documents and his desire to partner with a more reputable newsman at The Guardian (personified by a great supporting performance form David Thewlis), runs afoul of Julian’s “screw ‘em all and make it known anyway” sense of recklessness.
Cumberbatch’s Assange doesn’t really have a heck of a lot of range. He starts of a brash egomaniac and transforms into a dangerously brash megalomaniac with little regard for consequence or anyone else’s well being. He’s not a very likeable person, and Condon and Singer are decidedly not on his side. But the one thing Cumberbatch does get to do quite nicely is portray the exhaustion and frustration of a man who can’t shut himself down for even a few seconds. Assange here never gets tired, he merely becomes enraged at the very thought that he might be tiring. He’s a great spectre and puppet master who makes his presence (and matching ghostly white hair and complexion) felt even in scenes where he’s never on screen.
And yet, the more successful half of the film still has quite a bit of needless padding thanks to a sidebar examination of the events through the eyes of several government officials working to stem the release of the documents, played by Anthony Mackie, Stanley Tucci, and Laura Linney. They’re all fine actors doing good work, but their movie feels like a completely different one. Singer’s past work as a head writer on TVs The West Wing comes back here in a big and somewhat unwelcome way, as the scenes involving these characters are too snappy and almost too jokey to feel like they’re from the same universe as the rest of the film.
If one were to cut the first 45 minutes and just launch into the Bradley Manning debacle immediately with just enough explanation to make sense, and everyone not directly dealing with Daniel and Julian were cut from the film, there would be a really great and taut socio-political thriller here. Instead, it’s merely a passable drama with some great individual elements that could have used a bit more tooling.