The Fifth Estate – review

Benedict Cumberbatch is brilliant as Julian Assange in a flashy but essentially hollow account of the rise and fall of WikiLeaks

"He's not a source, he's the head of a huge media empire, accountable to no one. And we put him there." The story of Julian Assange's relationship with the world at large, the media in general and the Guardian in particular was recently told in engrossing detail in Alex Gibney's documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. That film (which provoked an equally detailed response from its subject) concluded that Assange was an information freedom fighter who became overwhelmed by his own ego, descending into recklessness, deviousness and worse.

Now, amid the usual denunciations from the white-haired one, comes Bill Condon's more overtly dramatic but less piercing biopic. Based in part upon Daniel Domscheit-Berg's account of his time as Assange's partner at "the world's most dangerous website", this visually flashy thriller retreads familiar ground, attempting to address the widest possible audience (Condon is clearly aiming for those who would have missed Gibney's film), constantly acknowledging its partisan sources, ultimately hedging its narrative bets.

After a title sequence that zips from the invention of writing, through the rise of the printing press to the dawn of the internet, we land in 2010, where the Guardian is holding out for accuracy, verification and redaction while others rush to publish the biggest information leak in history. From here, we flash back to the creation of WikiLeaks, tripping through its more celebrated revelations (tackling banks and politicians, exposing neo-Nazis), stopping occasionally to wonder about the balance between privacy and transparency ("you published their names and addresses; they have families, children… ") which is the key concern of West Wing graduate Josh Singer's script.

Mirroring this philosophical tension is the personal relationship between Assange and WikiLeaks spokesperson Daniel Berg, very well played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl, who respectively come to embody the soul and conscience of their internet monster – one eager to charge in where angels fear to tread, the other increasingly concerned about the consequences of their actions.

There's a clear echo here of The Social Network, which similarly counterpointed the rise of electronic information with the breakdown of communication between the co-founders of an online revolution, one nice, one nasty. To solve the age-old problem of making people sitting at keyboards seem cinematic, Condon looks back beyond Hideo Nakata's Chatroom (a stage play adaptation that presented the internet as a series of physical spaces) to Iain Softley's Hackers, derided upon its release in the mid-90s but regularly copied ever since.

Following in Softley's footsteps, The Fifth Estate offers surreal vistas of electronic landscapes through which our heroes chase each other's tails; IP addresses made flesh, a thousand Julians smiling back at us through cyberspace. These sequences are fun, and no less fancifully cartoonish than the scenes in the Guardian offices that employ the usual screen cliches about the thrilling behaviour of news reporters; a stubbly David Thewlis channelling Paddy Considine in The Bourne Ultimatum as he storms theatrically into offices – always late, always cross – while Peter Capaldi frowns over folded arms as the concerned editor whose hand appears to have been glued to his chin. Meanwhile, cinematographer Tobias Schliessler chases the cast along glassy corridors, up stairs, down escalators, through doors, apparently terrified of ever coming to a halt.

After a while it becomes apparent that the visual fizz is hiding an essential emptiness, a hole where the film's meaty core should be. Condon has always been an exceptionally even-handed director (look at his refreshingly sober take on Kinsey), and despite Assange's assertion that this film will be "a massive propaganda attack" goes out of his way to be balanced, perhaps overly so. Indeed, with the sexual assault charges referred to only as a final footnote, the film's most barbed allegation is that Assange dyes his hair, a detail linked to a bizarre childhood that is unsuccessfully raked for a character-forming back story.

Condon even gives his adversarial central character the last word, dismissing the film from the confines of the Ecuadorian embassy, telling viewers that it this is only one version of a far more complex story, urging them to find out more for themselves. While this may be philosophically admirable, it doesn't make for great drama, and for all its simplifications and fictionalisations, The Fifth Estate feels strangely unfocused, uncertain of how to deal with its slippery enigma.

Cumberbatch is brilliant, getting the peculiar vocal and physical mannerisms of Assange just so, playing him as saint and sinner, perfectly capturing his shabby charisma. Yet the film never allows him to show his teeth, withholding not only judgment but also clear direction, creating an unsatisfactory vacuum at the heart of the piece, like a great big cinematic meringue. A shame, too, that the terrific Alicia Vikander gets lost in the mix, her role as Berg's confidante and lover being one of the script's sketchiest confections. In the end we're left with an enjoyable but rather empty ride; easy on the eye, kinetic in construction, but undone by indecision about its still unfolding history.


Mark Kermode

The GuardianTramp

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