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Julian Asange (Benedict Cumberbatch), left, and Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl) in “The Fifth Estate,” the story about the founding of WikiLeaks. Photo by Frank Connor
Julian Asange (Benedict Cumberbatch), left, and Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl) in “The Fifth Estate,” the story about the founding of WikiLeaks. Photo by Frank Connor
Arts Rancho Santa Fe

Film review: Not the president’s men

Vigorous performances splash “The Fifth Estate” across the front page, but after reading between the lines, it becomes apparent that the mechanical way in which history is written has nothing truly revolutionary to witness. 

Many people have at least heard of the notorious news-leaking website WikiLeaks, and its founder/editor-in-chief Julian Assange. Regardless of the differing public opinions toward the impact he made on the world, one thing cannot be denied: his efforts had a profound effect on how information is spread, for better or worse.

Although it can be said that his technological accomplishment was fueled by a spark of revolution, the same cannot be said for Bill Condon’s tedious representation of it.

Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) join forces to monitor the activities of society’s privileged and powerful. To do this, they create WikiLeaks, a website that facilitates the anonymous leaking of covert information, exposing the dark secrets of governments, corporations, etc.

Pretty soon they find themselves publishing hard news at a rate faster than that of the world’s top media organizations. But Assange and Domscheit-Berg face their biggest dilemma when they acquire a treasure trove of classified U.S. intelligence files — a monumental discovery that pits the two against each other in a battle of ethics.

Director Condon illustrates Assange and Domscheit-Berg’s history with WikiLeaks in a fast-paced manner, covering one stage to another at a speed that eerily mimics the distribution of information in our very own computerized universe.

His frequent use of slick visuals — actual events making headlines in the papers, the virtual “workroom” of WikiLeaks — captures the rapid nature of the pair’s technologically enhanced communication methods. However, this comes at a cost; prioritizing appearance over foundation robs “The Fifth Estate” of its revolutionary fire. And without fire, you have nothing to strive for.

History plays itself out in an orderly manner so as to inform the audience nothing will be out of place, and Condon seems content to lie out the rise of WikiLeaks on paper and leave it that way.

Unfortunately, his paper-flat depiction of WikiLeaks’ revolutionizing of media transparency doesn’t possess the same spark that fueled the real events on which the film is based. Condon fails to realize that every revolution — tangible or intangible — must have a fiery core to foment its purpose.

Without such a flame, there is no conflict to experience, and given the varying reactions to Assange’s influence then and now, what we get instead is a story devoid of passion. By the time the United States government starts to become more involved in this information crisis, it is far too late to pull the film out of its perpetual state of boredom.

Furthermore, the external crisis didn’t match up with its internal counterpart. It’s not too hard to notice the brotherly bond between Assange and Domscheit-Berg during their early years, not to mention the consequences of their falling out as the hard ethical questions begin to pop up.

It might’ve been more productive if “The Fifth Estate” had made the impact of WikiLeaks just as meaningful as the relationship between its co-creators.

How regrettable that we won’t ever see that happening.

There is, however, one critical piece of information that gives this film a legitimate reason to speak up, and that would be the cast.

Benedict Cumberbatch takes a nuanced, methodical approach to Assange’s character, and his adroit handling of the moral ambiguity surrounding the man’s achievements is spot on. Daniel Brühl has this animated aura about him as he delves into Domscheit-Berg’s conscience-oriented mindset.

David Thewlis turns in a shrewd performance as British investigative journalist Nick Davies, and Alicia Vikander instills a warm conviction in Anke, Domscheit-Berg’s wife. We also get to see the Americans’ perspective on WikiLeaks’ activities, courtesy of solid supporting turns from Anthony Mackie, Stanley Tucci, and Laura Linney.

The cast alone is reason enough for anyone to see “The Fifth Estate,” but its mild treatment of the world-shattering website might leave a good number people feeling empty.


MPAA rating: R for language and some violence.
Running time: 2 hours and 8 minutes
Playing: In general release