Review: Cumberbatch’s Assange anchors muddled ‘The Fifth Estate’

TORONTO – The strongest, clearest expression of an idea in all of “The Fifth Estate” happens under the opening credits, as we watch the evolution of journalism from Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses to the death of print and the rise of the Internet, and while it’s a compelling expression of the idea that how we share important news has changed over time, it also captures one of my issues with the film itself. I don’t concur that print is dead and the Internet has replaced it, and I think it will take the perspective of time before we truly digest what is happening right now to news media.

Telling the story of Julian Assange and Wikileaks is premature, I believe. After all, Bradley Manning was just sentenced last month, and Assange is still holed up in an embassy in London, and the full ramifications of everything that leaked by the website are still being digested right now. In time, we’ll be able to get a full sense of who Assange is, of what Wikileaks really did, and of the impact of their actions, but at the moment, it all still feels like it is unfolding. Ultimately, it seems that this is not the story of Assange and his website, but rather the story of Daniel Domscheit-Berg, whose book “Inside Wikileaks: My Time With Julian Assange At The World’s Most Dangerous Website” is one of the two primary source for the movie. This is the story of how a young computer hacker fell under Assange’s sway, helped him turn Wikileaks into an international presence, and ultimately ended up disillusioned and frustrated by Assange’s agenda.

That’s a perfectly valid way into the story, of course, but it troubles me because making Daniel (Daniel Bruhl) into the hero of the piece doesn’t feel right, either. Sure, they also drew material from “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy” as well, but Domscheit-Berg’s book is very much his perspective on the events and not an impartial observation. I think Julian Assange is a creep, personally, so I’m not upset by the perspective offered up by the film. I just question the motivation of the author. I think it is very easy for anyone involved in something like WikiLeaks to build up a personal mythology that justifies what they did and that harpoons anyone who they disagree with, and it’s especially easy when you’ve got someone like Assange whose behavior is so erratic and self-serving and destructive.

Don’t get me wrong… we live in an age where media is run through so many filters that it is impossible to trust on almost any level. I have major problems with not only the way news is gathered, but the way it is prioritized. I think there are things about “The Fifth Estate” that touch on cogent, important ideas, and I understand the impulse to use Assange’s story as a way into that. I also think Benedict Cumberbatch does eerie work as Assange, vanishing into him to such a degree that it almost feels like Cumberbatch curdled. He looks like he’d smell like bad milk, and he nails that odd lisp of Assange’s as well as the growing vanity the more time he spent in front of cameras. I can’t speak to the accuracy of Bruhl’s performance because the person he’s playing was, by design, never the public face of the site.

Writer/director Bill Condon deserves all sorts of respect for trying to figure out a way to make large chunks of this movie more visually dynamic than you’d expect, considering this is largely about people sitting in front of laptops and typing, but he runs into many of the same issues that were part of all the “computer hacker” movies in the ’90s. The only way you can make this more visually exciting is to try to find a way to make us feel, as an audience, what it feels like to be Assange and Domscheit-Berg as they publish material that they know is going to shake up the status quo, and there are moments where the film captures that quite well. There are other moments where it feels like they just plain push too hard to create a visual metaphor, and it ultimately pulled me out of those scenes instead of allowing me to invest fully in them.

There are also a number of threads the movie follows, characters who drop in and out to convey information to us, but that don’t feel like real characters to me. Many of the actors who show up in the film seem to do so in order to convey a bit of important exposition, but there’s so much they try to fit into the film that there’s no time for the smaller details of human behavior, the things that would make this live and breathe in a way that something like Alex Gibney’s “We Steal Secrets” simply can’t. I think that’s my main complaint… I don’t have a problem with the big ideas of the film or with the ambition of how it’s told, but I also don’t feel like this digs deep in the way that narrative drama can.

Condon was the right guy for this film if you look at his filmography. Both “Gods and Monsters” and “Kinsey” tackle complicated, not particularly easy to like figures from real life and manage to turn their stories into living breathing drama that doesn’t feel the need to sand off all the rough edges. Even in “Dreamgirls,” which is fiction based in part on truth, Condon embraced the rough edges. Those rough edges, those quirks and eccentricities, those are the things that make people interesting. He’s certainly not afraid of a central character who almost dares us to feel empathy for them. It’s not the filmmaker that fails here. It’s the story itself. It’s not a whole story. Not yet. And it won’t be until we see the long term effects of what happened on the people involved and on the larger news media. All the effort in the world can’t invent a neat bow to tie around the story that gives it the shape that a movie demands. There are a number of small strong moments in the film, but taken as a whole, it feels like a muddle.

“The Fifth Estate” opens October 18, 2013.