Film review: The Fifth Estate - Benedict Cumberbatch perfectly cast as Julian Assange

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But Bill Condon's WikiLeaks thriller pulls in too many different directions

The Fifth Estate, Bill Condon's frenetic thriller about WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, suffers from one very obvious fundamental flaw. It can't work out its own attitude toward its central character. The filmmakers haven't made up their minds yet whether Assange is a visionary champion of free speech or an autocratic and "manipulative asshole" with a personality skirting on the autistic end of the spectrum. The film veers toward the latter interpretation, one reason why Assange himself has been so dismissive of it.

Another problem is the sheer complexity of the new media world that Assange inhabits. Things seemed very much simpler in All the President's Men when the Washington Post journalists Woodward and Bernstein were told by their source to "follow the money" and ended up bringing down a president. Here, after WikiLeaks posts online its huge hoard of leaked military and diplomatic documents, the results are nowhere near so straightforward. It is therefore a huge challenge for Condon and the screenwriter Josh Singer (best known for The West Wing) to create a taut and coherent narrative. With Assange currently holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London fighting extradition after sexual assault claims from two Swedish women, this is hardly a story that has reached a natural conclusion either.

The film-making style is flashy and energetic. The tone is set by the montage sequence which opens the film. We're bombarded with images which give a mini-history of printing and publishing, taking us from the earliest days of typesetting to the birth of the worldwide web.

The action begins in earnest in late 2010, just as The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel are about to release the classified US documents that came WikiLeaks' way via the US soldier Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning. The Guardian journalists are in a state of hyper-excitement. The music, sound and quick-fire editing heighten the tension. It is one of the paradoxes of The Fifth Estate that it is a film about characters who spend a large part of their lives staring at computer screens but Condon still manages to make it seem like an action movie.

Benedict Cumberbatch is very well cast as Assange. In a bizarre way, the role makes a perfect companion piece to Parade's End. The aristocratic British army officer he played may have been a Tory clinging to old world values but was as stubborn as Assange is shown to be here – and as principled.

With his white hair (which one character in the film claims is dyed) and pale skin, Assange looks as otherworldly as David Bowie's alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth, but Cumberbatch gives the character gravitas and dignity. He has absolutely no regard for social nicety. This is brought out in two of the film's most poignant scenes in which he stumbles into the private life of his assistant Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl.) In the first, he walks into Daniel's apartment late in the evening, sets up his laptop and starts working, completely oblivious to the fact that Daniel had just been making love to his girlfriend (Alicia Vikander). Privacy, it seems, is an utterly foreign concept to him. The second scene involves him going to dinner with Daniel's parents. He can't hide his contempt for their tidy bourgeois lives.

This isn't a biopic of Assange. At times, it looks as if it might turn into one. There are references to the son he hasn't seen for a year and to his own traumatic childhood in Australia where his mother was part of a religious cult. However, the filmmakers are too busy dealing with the other strands of the WikiLeaks story to delve too deeply into his background.

On one level, The Fifth Estate is a buddy movie. We see Assange from the perspective of Daniel Domscheit-Berg, whose memoir, Inside WikiLeaks, partially inspired the screenplay. There is a comic dimension to their relationship. Daniel is the Sancho Panza to Assange's Don Quixote or the Robin to his Batman. When Daniel first starts working for WikiLeaks, he thinks Assange has a huge army of assistants. In fact, it often seems it's just the two of them against the world. Condon throws in stylised sequences in which we see Assange and Daniel in what looks like a vast office with row after row of desks behind them. Of course, they're really hackers with laptops who work on the move.

The film hints at Assange's ambivalent relationship with mainstream media. He sneers at "the hallowed Guardian" with its high-minded airs and declining readership. At the same time he yearns for approval from its editors and journalists. He also begins to behave more and more like an old fashioned Citizen Kane-like proprietor.

The Fifth Estate pulls in far too many directions at once. The WikiLeaks story, it becomes apparent, is too big and complex to be turned into a coherent two-hour feature film. Characters flit in and out of sight for no particular reason. The brilliant young Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is in the film simply to provide at least a hint of a romantic subplot. There's a nicely caustic performance from Laura Linney as an American diplomat, and a very disturbing sequence showing a Libyan civil servant whose life is put in danger because of the leaks.

WikiLeaks has already dismissed The Fifth Estate as "a work of fiction masquerading as fact". It's a moot point whether the film really offers an accurate or fair portrayal of Assange, but what it does underline is that the man who set up an obscure website in 2006 is now one of the most famous media figures in the world. Hero or villain, DreamWorks wouldn't be making movies about him otherwise.

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