News junkies would appear to be the only audience for The Fifth Estate, a whiplash chronicle of the rise and, well, rise of WikiLeaks, and its Ziggy Stardust founder Julian Assange. Then again, the movie features Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange, and the actor's feline masculinity has plenty of fans.
Cumberbatch is very good, in a movie that isn't. His portrayal of Assange's vain paranoia, his delusion of intellectually hovering above the world around him, is The Fifth Estate's sole pleasure. The rest is a bum rush to judgment in Assange's favor, filled with didactic conversations in newsrooms and halls of power, fawning or fretting over the latest WikiLeaks expose.
Josh Singer's screenplay describes Assange as a churlish person yet also a seducer, convinced he's doing the world a favor, creating a story ripped from headlines he wouldn't trust. Cumberbatch ably conveys this contradictory, rock star attitude with a purring British accent and angular eyes. It's a meaty role, palatably chewed.
Director Bill Condon begins with a flurried history of news and information reporting, from Gutenberg's printing press to fiber optics placing the world in our palms. Condon declares up front that WikiLeaks' clearing house parceling of secrets is the next era, with a peek at 2010's panic over Assange's leak of classified documents provided by Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, a key figure late in The Fifth Estate.
Then we're back at the beginning: in 2007 when Assange haunts hacker conventions, seeking assistance in gathering and disseminating scandalous secrets. The most shocking of which is, of course, that hackers have conventions, complete with hotter escorts than their looks would seem to deserve. Assange meets Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl), coaxing his interest with Condon's folly, the latest misplayed attempt to make cinematic the act of tapping on a computer. This one has two guys sharing conversation in typed subtitles in English that they're already speaking in voiceover. Does Condon believe anyone who'd watch a WikiLeaks movie can't read?
Singer's screenplay is laden with rudimentary references to international scandals WikiLeaks exposes: a crooked Swiss bank, a rigged election in Kenya, Scientology. Each is followed by someone praising or damning Assange, while the man himself laps up attention like a Cheshire cat. When it isn't dwelling on the scintillating issue of the public's right to know versus the publisher's responsibility, The Fifth Estate really gets dull.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.
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The Fifth Estate
Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi, Jamie Blackley, Carice van Houten, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci
Screenplay: Josh Singer, based on the books Inside WikiLeaks: My Times with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding
Rating: R; profanity, brief violence
Running time: 128 min.