Is he a hero of the Internet age or an enemy of national security? The filmmakers of this very current political thriller don’t seem to be able to make up their minds about the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose website released millions of classified documents online and set off a media and political storm.
Benedict Cumberbatch gets the ticks and mannerisms of the white-haired anarchic crusader – who is still holed up in Ecuador’s London embassy – just right, although the script does not really let him find
After The Social Network, The Fifth Estate could be seen as a companion piece about the nature of power and privacy in the digital age, although in this case, Assange has condemned the film as an establishment hatchet job.
Rather like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Assange famously pays little attention to social niceties. In one scene, he walks into the apartment of his assistant Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Brühl) and starts working on his laptop, oblivious to the fact his partner has just been making love to his girlfriend.
The hyperactive and visually kaleidoscopic style overcomes the problem of a drama that mostly happens in cyberspace.
Brühl comes to Assange as a starry eyed fan but soon realises that he is a difficult and unpredictable man to work with.
As the leaks raise alarm bells in western capitals, characters are constantly seen moving, running down corridors or storming in and out of rooms with furrowed brows.
However, one senses that all this action is hiding a lack of depth in the narrative, an inability to focus in on the enigmatic figure at the centre of the story and reveal his true motivation and beliefs.
There are hints about Assange’s estranged son, his unusual upbringing – his mother was apparently a member of a sinister cult in Australia – and the unresolved sexual assault case against him, but these are not explored satisfactorily.
Towards the end, Cumberbatch’s Assange morphs into a kind of Andy Warhol lookalike villain ranting at the West – but there is no dramatic resolution.
Perhaps this is inevitable as the consequences of WikiLeaks’ revelations and the actions of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden are still being played out. The battle for control of information has more sequels to come.
Review by Joe Gill