So much for all the buzz around Bill Condon's (Dreamgirls) frustratingly flat dramatization of the formation, triumphs, and sundering of WikiLeaks, the anarchist information-sharing website. Like some adolescent fantasy of modern geopolitics, Condon's film pretends to globetrot from Tripoli to Cairo to Brussels to Berlin to London to Nairobi to Washington, but never feels for a moment like it exists anywhere but on the screen. Relying on tight close-ups and lengthy speeches, there is a distinctly made-for-TV feel to the proceedings which even great performances couldn't have overcome. More's the pity, then, that some fabulous actors (including Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, and David Thewlis) fumble their way through their supporting roles, struggling with the clunky dialogue and wildly unlikely turns of phrase.
But it is with the lead role that The Fifth Estate has its greatest trouble. On the routinely entertaining British TV show Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch plays a borderline sociopathic genius with an ego roughly the size of all things bright and beautiful. So it wasn't hard to imagine him tackling the role of Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, scourge of the corporate aristocracy, and utter cock (apparently).
But, whereas his Sherlock Holmes crackles with humour, surprises, and a compelling (if elusive) integrity, Assange comes off here as little more than a misguided misanthrope. He's not much fun to watch, it turns out, and even less fun to cheer for. Not that the film is certain that we should cheer for him; The Fifth Estate is mostly told from the perspective of Assange's partner at WikiLeaks (a wooden Daniel Bruehl), a man who gradually loses respect and admiration for the visionary whom he once idolized.
A few years ago, when WikiLeaks was on everyone's lips, this film might have made more of a splash. As it stands today, with Assange trapped in legal limbo and living in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, everything about this story feels curiously truncated, unsatisfyingly vague. What have we learned, exactly? Moreover, the reason Assange remains under the protection of the Ecuadorean government is that he faces charges of sexual assault against two women -- a rather crucial angle which this film all-but-completely ignores, to my utter bewilderment. If nothing else, this very real possibility that Assange is a perpetrator of sexual violence deeply complicates this man, his story, and our relationship to him as a potential "hero" or "victim".