Being a sensible person, you've probably taken a liking to Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor, Dickensian beanpole and banana-fana name-game destroyer who has lately played everyone literate geeks adore: Sherlock, Smaug, Khan. And, as a sensible person, you probably were curious — even heartened — to hear that Cumberbatch would be appearing in Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a real person from our real world, albeit a fellow still touched with something like mad-genius magic.
Or maybe you saw photos of Cumberbatch done up with stringy white hair and hoped he was playing Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné. Regardless, at some point you've probably thought, "Wow, Cumberbatch as Assange — I'd like to see that." The good news is that deep into the back end of The Fifth Estate, just before the credits, you actually do, when Cumberbatch faces a camera straight-on and gets to act for a good forty seconds. He's marvelous, his Assange equal parts charisma and nerves, moral zeal and pushy self-righteousness, a leader of info-warriors and the consummate outcast. Cumberbatch speaks in a put-upon gush, his Assange sick of all the time people waste by making him spell out the truths he considers self-evident. But he also thrives on the mere fact that people are listening. Pale as he is, he glows from within.
He might be that good the rest of the movie, too. But I defy you to say for sure. Other than that brief scene, when Assange is addressing a fixed camera, his every moment is diced up by reckless, senseless cuts. Early on, Assange gives a warm-up speech in a near-empty lecture hall. He's a little uncertain at first, his stray thoughts gathering and finally accumulating power, but Condon cuts and paces this not like a scene of slow-burn performance, but as though Cumberbatch were Jason Bourne escaping an airport.
Since the movie has no one else to cut to, most of the quick, jagged shots of Cumberbatch speaking give way to quick, jagged shots of Cumberbatch speaking from a slightly different angle, none more revealing than any other, and none keyed to anything that Cumberbatch is doing or that we might be feeling. These shards pile up, but they don't communicate; it's like director Condon broke a mirror and is asking our brains to glue it back together for him.
It's almost appropriate that the movie rarely gives us a good look at Assange, since Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer — working from a pair of books on WikiLeaks, including Daniel Domscheit-Berg's insider tell-all — never seem to have worked out who they think this guy is, other than a bad BFF.
The Fifth Estate follows Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), Assange's early partner and here a milquetoast audience surrogate, from WikiLeaks' first info dumps right up to the watershed 2010 release — by the site, the Guardian, and the New York Times together — of tens of thousands of U.S. documents concerning diplomatic efforts and the war in Afghanistan.
This Assange starts out heroic and inspiring, liberating Domscheit-Berg from a job he hates for the work of exposing corruption and speaking truth to power. But then Assange turns megalomanic and needs some truth told to him, too. As the movie wears on and the friendship frays, Domscheit-Berg suffers third-act disillusionment: It turns out that cavalierly dumping reams of state secrets on the Internet might put some lives in danger! Cumberbatch is reduced to expectorating stern statements of first principles: "WikiLeaks doesn't edit," he declares at Domscheit-Berg, as if the reasons why are obvious, his hard-assed conviction not far off from Danny Trejo's "Machete don't tweet."
The issues at play here are fascinating, but Condon and Singer never let any argument about journalism or the philosophy of free information last longer than a couple of ping-ponged lines between master (Assange) and student (Domscheit-Berg). Instead, they're always off to the next leak, the next buddy-drama travail, the next desperate attempt to make it look as if this isn't a movie about dudes typing at each other. The low point has to be Condon's visual metaphor for the Internet itself: When Assange and Domscheit-Berg are online, we see them sitting at desks in an infinite office, with sand for floor and sky for ceiling. Sometimes, when working on a leak, the boys page through file folders; it's the revolution as dreamed by the staffing folks at your local temp agency. Silly as it is, it's a rare flourish of invention in a film that, for all its restlessness, feels staid and dated.
Like J.J. Abrams's TV dramas, The Fifth Estate opens at the most interesting moment and then flashes way back to show how we got there. As in globe-trotting spy pictures, there are labeled establishing shots for each international location. There's the boho Euro underground hacker culture, the panicked U.S. State Department exposition-deliverers (including Laura Linney!), even something of a countdown clock. It all hews so closely to template that it's easy to imagine that paper clip from Microsoft Word popping up on Condon's desktop one day to say, "It looks like you're directing a techno-thriller. Would you like help?"