The real story revealed in The Fifth Estate isn’t the rise of Julian Assange or the threat of Wikileaks; it’s that, by and large, nobody cares.
The film is bubbling over with characters exclaiming or worrying that leaked documents will shake governments and multinational institutions to their very cores, and it all rings rather empty at this point. What has Assange done? What have leaked war documents and intelligence cables led to? Edward Snowden, maybe, and what has that led to? Shock and outrage followed by a chorus of chirping crickets.
Beyond the true impact of Wikileaks, though, there are the merits of a film to consider. The best thing about The Fifth Estate is, indeed, Assange himself, or rather Benedict Cumberbatch’s magnificent, megalomaniacal portrayal of the Australian hacker-turned-activist-turned-exile. It’s jarringly good stuff, helped along all the more by Daniel Brühl’s turn as Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Assange’s right hand man during Wikileaks’ moment of ascension. Brühl is even better in Rush, still in theaters, and that’s a better movie, anyway.
The movie bends close to reality a fair amount of the time, using real news footage instead of recreations and ringing incredibly of-the-moment. But then The Fifth Estate introduces a small cabal of American diplomats (Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, and Anthony Mackie). They’re not real people, nor is there any considerable reason to show the intelligence community’s response to the leaked documents or anything else. It could even be argued that the facelessness of entities like Big Brother is precisely the point of making them the bad guy.
The tale of Julian Assange has been featured a couple times this year, with the documentary We Steal Secrets faring better telling almost exactly the same story. Watch this for Cumberbatch if for anything, but The Fifth Estate is mostly a house of cards.
THE FIFTH ESTATE, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Laura Linney. Directed by Bill Condon. Rated R, 128 minutes. Opens Friday.