TORONTO — One might expect the first major feature film about a man as odd and controversial as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange would itself be odd and controversial. The Fifth Estate — which officially opened the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival at its gala premiere Thursday night — certainly is odd. But it does a remarkable job of avoiding being controversial.
Rather than hone in on a single part of the Wikileaks story, and stay with Julian Assange throughout, the film employs a large cast of actors and races through seemingly every beat of the meteoric rise of Wikileaks — from its early start as a scrappy thorn in the side of international banks and third world dictatorships up to the bombshell revelations caused by the massive info dump by Pvt. Chelsea Manning. (Manning, who announced her transition after filming on The Fifth Estate had wrapped, is referred to as Bradley Manning in the film.) This might work better if the film dramatized why all of these leaks meant something — making us feel their impact in real, human terms. But director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Kinsey) and screenwriter Josh Singer (of Fox’s Fringe and NBC’s The West Wing) instead stuff the film with a stupefying number of speeches praising Wikileaks for changing the world, focusing as much on Wikileaks’ page views as a measurement of success as on any real world impact. And page view counts, while desperately important to digital journalists, do not make for compelling drama. When two of Assange’s sources are gunned down in Kenya, meanwhile, we have no idea why they died, or who they are, until after it happens.
The filmmakers are especially enamored with an abstracted visualization of the way Wikileaks works — it involves an infinite warren of desks meant to represent the hundreds of volunteers Assange claims are working for Wikileaks. It’s effective at first, but the film keeps returning to this visual again and again, even after we learn that the metaphor itself is actually quite hollow. Meanwhile, we never see any acknowledgment of why Assange is currently living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London — he is avoiding extradition to Sweden on sexual misconduct charges. Instead, the filmmakers relegate this reveal to a post-script title-card at the end of the film.
Perhaps Condon and Singer felt they had already made Assange out to be a first class asshole, so they didn’t need to pile on. Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for playing righteous geniuses who are clinically diagnosable pains in the ass, and his Assange is no different — The Fifth Estate is not a hagiography. And Cumberbatch’s performance is never less than compelling. One of the film’s best moments is when Assange realizes he is being watched by both U.S. and Russian agents, and the camera just rests on Cumberbatch’s face as it twitches with anxiety and paranoia, one of the only times we get to feel what it is like to be a man who uses the internet to take on national governments. But I can’t say Cumberbatch is ever surprising. In fact, there are times when the exasperation on the face of Assange’s right-hand man Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl, Inglorious Basterds) — whose book is one of the main sources for Singer’s screenplay — feels akin to Martin Freeman’s Watson in Sherlock, or, more darkly, Chris Pine’s Kirk in Star Trek Into Darkness.
Once Manning’s revelations come to light, the film does kick into a more familiar spy thriller-y gear, with Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci playing a pair of State Department officials dealing with the fallout. We finally see the human cost of Assange’s zealotry, through a Lybian official and State Department source played by Alexander Siddig (Syriana). But for a film about a man who has devoted his life to transparency, it is remarkable just how little the film is able to reveal about Assange.