Listen up, Cumberbitches: The first estate was the clergy, the second the nobility, the third the peasantry, the fourth the press, and “The Fifth Estate” is all Benedict Cumberbatch, who in Bill Condon’s painstaking WikiLeaks movie gives us the not the Julian Assange we know, but rather the Julian Assange we want. And maybe need.
It would be natural to think that Cumberbatch was working at a disadvantage, considering all the exposure the real Assange has had in the media, and the widespread familiarity of his rather distancing, white-maned persona, but the opposite is true. Cumberbatch adopts the WikiLeaks founder’s Australian cadences, and even a few of the mannerisms, but the more impressive trick is how he imbues Assange – someone we think we know -- with warmth, zeal and modesty, in a character whose reflex is to conceal those very qualities from those around him.
How close is he to the real Assange? God knows, but Cumberbatch’s Assange is ultimately likable, as well as complex, at war with keepers of secrets and also with himself. It’s early to be speculating about awards, but Cumberbatch has certainly accomplished the unlikely, making a chilly public character a sympathetic martyr to a noble cause. (Rather than denounce the movie the real Assange should be counting his blessings, there in the Ecuadoran Embassy).
Less impressive is director Condon’s efforts in making the virtual dramatic. A lot of what WikiLeaks accomplished in its revelations of Swiss banking scandals, Kenyan political corruption, Icelandic banking shenanigans and the atrocities committed by U.S. helicopter pilots in Baghdad was about data, numbers, coding and encryption. There’s a lot of computerized anxiety generated in the early sequences of the film, but screens filled with glowing green characters are not the same as skies filled with flying monkeys. It’s a cautionary movie politically, but also cinematically: The more our lives are lived online, the more directors are going to have to wrestle with making the inherently undramatic engaging.
Condon eventually just gives up: When Assange confederates Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl) and Marcus (Moritz Bleibtrau) sabotage the WikiLeaks site in an effort to keep Assange from releasing unredacted intelligence materials, Condon goes all magic-realist, having Daniel trash a metaphorical office to illustrate the havoc being played on line; in the aftermath of the betrayal, Assange walks across a trashed, burning landscape, with mirages of his much younger blond self haunting his dream. It’s not bad, but it’s a little desperate.
Based on two books – Domscheit-Berg’s "Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website" and David Leigh and Luke Harding’s "WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy" – “The Fifth Estate” addresses the accusations against Assange, which led him to hole up with the Ecuadorans in London, only in its end titles. That the movie is pro-Assange (not “anti-WikiLeaks” as Assange has alleged) is evident, but given Cumberbatch’s performance, it could hardly be otherwise.