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TORONTO — Whittling the logistical sprawl and moral swamp of WikiLeaks into the story of a falling-out between two intimate partners, Bill Condon‘s The Fifth Estate views site founder Julian Assange largely through the eyes of Daniel Domscheit-Berg, his German spokesperson in the period leading up to the 2010 release of “The Iraq War Logs.” Of necessity, the film plays less like the director’s earlier works involving real-world subjects (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters) than like The Social Network. Here again we have an internet phenomenon that has changed the world, created by a polarizing, psychologically opaque man accused of betraying those around him. The comparison isn’t flattering to Estate, which, though it traffics in life and death and threats to the world’s great institutions, isn’t always as gripping as a film whose main drama was who would get rich over letting “friends” share party pictures. Though it will attract attention at the box office, it is unlikely to appeal broadly to moviegoers who, one suspects, have never been as worked up about WikiLeaks as journalists and governments are.
The most compelling thing here by far is the film’s vision of Assange, by all accounts a man of enormous self-regard and slippery ethics. Benedict Cumberbatch has the character in hand from the start — his way of brushing into another’s space and making it his office, of not seeing others unless they’re reflecting back some of the energy he emits, of elevating himself by making others’ concerns sound trivial. The actor brings extra ambiguity to scenes in which Assange is ostensibly opening up to people; only once (when activist associates in Kenya are killed) do his emotions seem untainted by manipulative play-acting.
When Assange and Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl) first meet at a hacker convention, the younger man is flattered to have the opportunity to spread awareness of a site he believes in. Bringing Assange to a party house in Berlin, he hopes to talk about its operations when his new friend takes things online. The two sit in a quiet corner with laptops open, typing chat messages back and forth instead of speaking.
Lines from the chat are projected across the actors’ faces, the only really smirk-worthy device Condon uses in a film hoping to animate online activity. Later sequences, which use innumerable headlines receding into the distance to show how leaks propagate online, are simply uninspired and unable to capture WikiLeaks’s startling impact visually.
The film does a more evocative job with the amorphous nature of the site’s internal operations, visualizing all its hundreds of volunteers — be they in Internet cafes, bedrooms or (as Berg often is) hiding in a supply closet at work — as connected in a vast virtual office. The rows upon rows of desks may evoke a 1960s steno pool more than a 21st century workplace, but the metaphor is useful, especially in the dramatic moment when Berg learns that all the other volunteers he has worked with on the site are actually just Assange, speaking through different e-mail accounts.
Yes, though the publisher boasted of a vast army of techies bent on spreading secrets,The Fifth Estate says that for some time Assange and Berg — and one computer server — were the entire team. The knowledge generates intense loyalty on Berg’s part, but he’s smart enough to know they need help. Using some savings, he buys a stack of servers and stashes them across Europe so they all can’t be seized or shut down at once.
Berg brings others into the inner circle, leading to his first clash with his control-freak partner. Things go seriously bad later, as they negotiate with The Guardian and other old media outlets to jointly release troves of military and diplomatic documents leaked by Bradley Manning. (David Thewlis, playing veteran reporter Nick Davies, embodies the wise bridge between the sensibilities of respectable journalism and indiscriminate revelation.) Though Assange covets the boost in exposure this publication will bring, Berg is shocked to find that he doesn’t intend to honor his promise to redact names and other identifying information from the highly-sensitive cables. The film intends this conflict to stir debate over the degrees of secrecy that are required in free societies, but it comes across more as a clash of personalities. The film sides with Berg, whose brand of idealism is less concerned with dramatic, attention-getting gestures than with producing a righteous result.
Showing the far other side of the coin, Estate offers some composite characters in the U.S. State Department (played by Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci) who must try to squash leaks and scramble to protect operatives about to be exposed. This side of the film feels perfunctory, and while some tension is generated by a sequence following a Libyan source trying to evade arrest, the scenes don’t add much to Berg and Assange’s impassioned debates over the value of secret operatives’ lives versus those of the civilians killed in the wars they wage.
Production Company: Anonymous Content
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Peter Capaldi, Carice Van Houten, Dan Stevens, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney
Director: Bill Condon
Screenwriter: Josh Singer
Producers: Steve Golin, Michael Sugar
Executive producers: Richard Sharkey, Paul Green, Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King
Director of photography: Tobias Schliessler
Production designer: Mark Tildesley
Music: Carter Burwell
Costume designer: Shay Cunliffe
Editor: Virginia Katz
Rated R, 128 minutes
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