As the world doesn't seem to have quite made up its mind about Julian Assange, it seems fitting that the new film about him and the rise of WikiLeaks is ambivalent about him as well.
The Fifth Estate takes us inside the hackers' milieu, the personalities and news stories that blew up thanks to WikiLeaks. It visits the very real consequences of Assange's actions. But it never gets inside the man, what drives him, what justifies the arrogant self-righteousness upon which he built his worldview.
Director Bill Condon (Kinsey, Dreamgirls) dazzles us with the whirl of Assange's crusade, following him from Africa to Europe, zipping from one trouble spot, where the release of secret documents might make a difference, to another.
In a breathless two hours, the film lets us see the man through the eyes of a new recruit and close associate. Young Euro-hacker Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl of Rush) is in awe of this international man of mystery, charismatic in his shock of white hair, his steely determination to set up a website run by legions of whistle blowers like himself, and quoting Oscar Wilde: "Give a man a mask, and he will tell you the truth."
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Assange as a somewhat justified paranoid, a ghost who is that moving target no assassin or government can (he thinks) hit. He is above the mayhem he creates, rarely second-guessing what he's doing as he convinces contacts they are one of many thousands, that his anonymous-tip website is bullet-proof in its security.
Which was probably the attitude of the various banks and governments whose security his whistle blowers breached.
Assange sees conspiracies everywhere and has a sneering contempt for the mainstream news organizations (the fourth estate) that he figures WikiLeaks displaces. Only no one is noticing WikiLeaks at the time Berg is recruited. That's before the Bradley Manning cache of military and U.S. State Department communications come to them. That's before the news conferences, the collaboration with the hated newspaper and magazine journalists, who sort through the raw data Assange cavalierly and naively thought would be damning by itself, with the professional reporters providing context and some semblance of objectivity and responsibility.
And that's before people start dying and Berg starts wondering who this wildly secretive weirdo with an obsession for control, privacy and fame really is, and how big the infrastructure of the suddenly famous WikiLeaks is, questioning the very notion of a "movement" that isn't a movement at all.
Brühl brings a youthful enthusiasm and naivete to Berg. Laura Linney is terrific as a State Department employee trying to do her work, frantically pulling in secret sources before they're exposed and killed in countries that aren't as tolerant of whistle blowers as the West.
And the aloof, guarded Cumberbatch plays Assange as a mixture of brilliance, hucksterism, ego and naivete. He carries the baggage of an actor who plays "smart" with a menacing edge.
But with every revelation, from his troubled childhood to his skirt-chasing to the hair color and the stories about how it turned white, the hustler shows through and the mystery deepens.
For all the technical sparkle, Condon never quite connects all the dots about Assange and how this "revolution" he claims to be leading is part of the zeitgeist, the global strain of anarchy that resulted in uprisings in the Middle East, the Occupy Movement, marches in Europe and the Tea Party in the United States.
'The Fifth Estate'
R for language and some violence. Dreamworks. 2:08. Fayette Mall, Hamburg, Movie Tavern, Richmond.