Ripped from headlines that still feel wet (even if its subjects might feel that phrasing gives print media too much credit), “The Fifth Estate” dramatizes the fast, controversial rise of anonymous-whistleblower website WikiLeaks and its figurehead, Julian Assange. Aiming to provide the kind of speculative personality portrait behind another sweeping digital-age change in communication that touches nearly everyone, a la “The Social Network,” helmer Bill Condon and scenarist Josh Singer’s film must also stuff in a heavy load of global events, all in a hyperkinetic style aping today’s speed of information dispersal. Results can’t help but stimulate, but they’re also cluttered and overly frenetic, resulting in a narrative less informative, cogent and even emotionally engaging than Alex Gibney’s recent docu “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.” Initial interest should be high, though likely mixed critical and word of mouth response may dampen B.O. staying power.
After an opening credits montage that rockets through the history of news media, from hand-lettered scrolls to the Internet, the pic leaps into the peak October 2010 moment of WikiLeaks’ fame and notoriety, when, in tandem with the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel, Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) began releasing an enormous store of leaked classified U.S. government documents. The resulting fracas outshone even prior firestorms incurred by WikiLeaks’ exposure of the American military’s massacre of unarmed civilians and journalists in Afghanistan; ruling corruption in Kenya and elsewhere; Swiss bank Julius Baer providing a massive tax dodge for wealthy clients around the world; and ugly truths behind Iceland’s economic collapse. In the fallout, as postscripts note, Assange remains in hiding (at Ecuador’s London embassy) while various angry governments call for his extradition.
The remainder of the film tracks back to 2007, when he first makes contact with German technology activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruehl), whom he trusts enough to make a close collaborator — rare for a man whose paranoias are reinforced not only by the dangerous intel he helps make public, but by a traumatic Ozzie upbringing within the New Age cult known as the Family (glimpsed in brief flashbacks).
Daniel is an enthusiastic acolyte, so much so that the 24/7 devotion Julian demands soon exasperates Daniel’s girlfriend (Alicia Vikander in a standard thankless role). The mysterious, seemingly large Wiki organization Assange frequently alludes to turns out to be nothing but “a website, a couple email addresses, and you,” he eventually admits, though others climb on board — notably Daniel’s master-hacker friend Marcus (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Icelandic agitator Birgitta Jonsdottir (Carice van Houten).
But even as WikiLeaks appears to be winning the information war in forcing transparency from governments and corporations, pushing them toward greater ethical accountability, Assange show signs of megalomania, instability and questionable judgment. Returning to the screenplay’s start point, his troops rebel when Assange balks at redacting any top-secret American communiques, even the parts that might put innocent lives at lethal risk in global hot spots around the globe.
Any five minutes of foregrounded human interest or backgrounded news material here could easily float a feature on its own. Both the kindest and most damning thing you can say about “The Fifth Estate” is that it primarily hobbles itself by trying to cram in more context-needy material than any single drama should have to bear.
You can feel the strain on “The West Wing” writer Singer, penning his first bigscreen effort, as practically every line has to sum up a philosophy, situation or dilemma. Likewise, Condon, usually a director of admirable cogency and restraint, lays on a battery of audiovisual tactics (onscreen text, graphics, split screen, vertical wipes, etc.), largely set to techno tracks or Carter Burwell’s equally pounding score. Tobias Schliesser’s camera often jitters as if on its 10th espresso, while Virginia Katz’s editing seldom pauses for breath. There’s conceptual logic behind these decisions, but they are as frequently off-putting as they are thematically apt.
No wonder the two perhaps most memorable scenes are among the very few that slow enough to allow nuance: an uncomfortable visit to Daniel’s parents’ home, when Julian openly disdains them as bourgeois intellectuals; and a let’s-just get-drunk moment between Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as State Dept. honchos whose careers won’t likely survive the latest Wiki leaks.
An array of fine British, European and Middle Eastern actors fill other supporting roles, making the most of fleeting opportunities. But for all its flexibility in imagining what might make its real-life characters tick, “The Fifth Estate” conveys less sense of personal insight into its two main figures than “We Steal Secrets” did (and Gibney didn’t even have direct access to Assange). German star Bruehl (also co-headlining another big English-language Toronto title, “Rush”) is stuck playing Domscheit-Berg — who wrote one of the two tomes the script draws on — as a single-note nice guy, the standard audience-alter-ego witness to events that spiral out of control. Hardworking Cumberbatch captures Assange’s slightly otherworldly air, as well as numerous creepier qualities. (The real-life man may be a hero to many, but few claim he’s a nice guy.) Still, it too feels like a somewhat one-dimensional turn, hemmed in by an overall sensibility that just can’t stop to probe deeper.
Shot in numerous countries, the pic has first-rate tech/design elements that are, like the project as a whole, sometimes too busy for their own good.