Films about coders and hackers are notoriously hard to pull off. I mean, what’s more boring than watching someone type—even with great purpose—onto their computer screen?
The best example of overcoming that challenge was the dazzling The Social Network (still my favorite film of the last 10 years), about Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. It’s useful to compare that film to this one, about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Both Assange and Zuckerberg are brilliant and enigmatic guys. Both have an intimidating intellect and anti-social qualities. In both cases, their ascension to fame (or in Assange’s case, infamy) was aided by the diligent help of a loyal sidekick and friend, who ultimately felt cast aside.
But The Social Network made a very canny choice: Instead of telling the story from the perspective of Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield)—a more natural and relatable lead character—they told it from Zuckerberg’s point of view. He was our protagonist, and as such, we got to know him from the inside out.
The Fifth Estate does the exact opposite: We see Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch, sporting a stringy white wig) almost exclusively through the eyes of his German sidekick Daniel (Daniel Brühl).
To Daniel, and to us, Assange is both charismatic and creepy, righteous and selfish, a hero and a villain, but ultimately inscrutable. In other words, except for a few revelations here and there (WikiLeaks started as a one-man operation; Assange was raised on a cult; he dyes his hair, etc.), we leave the film knowing as much about Assange as we knew going in.
The coding stuff gets tedious, and director Bill Condon tries to compensate for that with lots of jump cuts and busy camerawork. There are several jokes about Assange’s white hair, all which fall flat. Condon also creates this somewhat clunky metaphor of Assange coding on an endless beach, instead of in the cramped back rooms, cafes, and closets where he really worked. (The idea here being that WikiLeaks is of the people and for the people and therefore, eternal.)
The film does poke around the edges of the essential moral dilemma of WikiLeaks—that whistle-blowing without fear of censure is both wonderfully democratic and potentially reckless. All was grand when WikiLeaks was taking down corrupt Swiss banks and Third World tyrants. But when Assange released classified documents about the war in Afghanistan, he put real people, both military and civilian, in harm’s way. And the more isolated and messianic Assange grew, the more careless he was about releasing his leaks without fully vetting them.
Cumberbatch does a good job making Assange both slightly unhinged and undeniably alluring—he’s equal parts anarchist and louche rock star. But I found Brühl to be impossibly bland. (This is the second film in a row where Brühl has played a dull character—he was also the humorless Formula One Driver in Rush.)
There are tons of other bit parts, too, all played by expert character actors: David Thewlis and Dan Stevens as The Guardian editors who see WikiLeaks as both a boon and a threat; Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney as the exasperated State Department operatives. But they’re not on screen enough to really register. Our emotional investment should be with Daniel and Julian, but it’s not. One is bland, the other unknowable. Which all adds up to a somewhat unsatisfying filmgoing experience.