The Fifth Estate kicks off with a montage detailing the entire history of news, beginning with hieroglyphics and continuing through Martin Luther nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door, a telegraph relaying the sinking of the Titanic, FDR’s first inaugural address, Walter Cronkite reporting on the JFK assassination, the fall of the Berlin wall, and 9/11. Somewhere in there, probably, is the invention of the biopic, of which Bill Condon’s timely yet tepid Julian Assange movie is a resolutely typical example. Based on two books—one by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, whom the film employs as a viewer surrogate—The Fifth Estate has been preemptively dismissed by the WikiLeaks founder as a work “not of fiction, but of debased truth.” That description implies more verve than this would-be cross between The Social Network and Carlos can manage. It’s hard for a film to feel urgent when it amounts to a feature-length flashback to current headlines.
Condon has already made two fine, unconventional life-drawn portraits, Gods And Monsters and Kinsey, each of which was more about its subject’s ideas and legacy than biographical detail. Working with a much more current figure, The Fifth Estate can manage only a scrim. The film traces the tradeoffs of Assange’s radically open submission platform and zero-editing philosophy. As Domscheit-Berg—called simply Berg onscreen—Daniel Brühl is the idealist computer whiz who’s at first fascinated with his white-haired new friend (Benedict Cumberbatch) but comes to see him as reckless for his failure to redact names from the leaked diplomatic cables published in 2011. West Wing vet Josh Singer’s screenplay lays out cases pro and con: Laura Linney turns up as a mid-level state department employee forced by the disclosures into the emergency extraction of an informant from Libya, while reporter Nick Davies (David Thewlis) waxes philosophic about the brave men who change the world.
Giving the kind of mannered performance that seems predicated on careful mimicry of 60 Minutes, Cumberbatch impresses without ever coming across as more than an abstraction. Relegating the sexual assault allegations and embassy exile to title cards at the end, The Fifth Estate is content to tell a story more normalized and superficial than the one that’s already in the public record. Instead of insight, the film offers the usual Freudian rationalizations (“Only someone so obsessed with his own secrets could have come up with a way to report on everyone else’s,” Berg hazards), along with the obligatory subplot in which the hero can’t make enough time for his girlfriend (Alicia Vikander). Anyone who’s read a website—or a newspaper or a scroll—within the last three years will have a pretty good idea of how The Fifth Estate plays.