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"I believe you are a good person, but I do not believe that this film is a good film."
That's what Julian Assange wrote to Benedict Cumberbatch, dismissing out of hand the movie in which Cumberbatch would be playing him, The Fifth Estate. Pity that the movie had to prove him right. A stultifying and stodgy biopic that jazzes up its modern story with laughable dramatic techniques, The Fifth Estate tries to ape its subject's bravado and innovation to near-disastrous results.
Cumberbatch, devotedly mimicking Assange and digging into the man's deep paranoia and self-regard, is perfectly admirable in a part that Josh Singer's script only allows to skim the surface. Based on the book written by Daniel Domscheit-Berg with British journalist David Leigh, The Fifth Estate tells the story largely from Berg's point of view. Played by Daniel Bruhl as a wide-eyed and maybe hopelessly naive hacker, Berg teams up with Assange in 2007 at a Berlin hacker's conference, unaware that he has become only the second member of a group Assange claims has "hundreds of volunteers." Their accomplishments come quickly and are undeniably important, exposing corruption in a Swiss bank and rigged Kenyan elections, and establishing Wikileaks as a safe haven for whistleblowers, where their information will be posted, unedited, for the world to see.
As Wikileaks moves closer to its blockbuster 2010 reveal of the Afghan War Logs, on which it collaborated with The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel, The Fifth Estate expands to check in on the people who will be affected once Wikileaks grows to massive prominence. It doesn't do a particularly good job up to that point depicting the pressure-cooker intensity of Berg and Assange's work, but it really loses track at this point, diverting off to the American State Department (personified by super-professional Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci), the staff of The Guardian (David Thewlis as Leigh, plus Peter Capaldi and Dan Stevens), and even a Libyan informant (Alexander Siddig) whose life will be endangered by the State Department cable leaks. None of the characters have enough screen time to make an impact, or do anything to illuminate the massive headlines that most audiences will remember about Wikileaks from just three years ago.
Not content to stop there, director Bill Condon also throws constant gimmicks at the wall to enliven and explain this complex story, which is mostly about two dudes sitting at computers and typing. He imagines a massive warehouse-style "Wikileaks office," with snow on the ground for some reason, which is alternately populated by Berg and Assange, or an army of clone Assanges, or a lonely Berg raging by himself; Bruhl doesn't have nearly enough material to turn Berg into a believable character, and when it comes time for him to knock over desks in his imaginary office, you actually feel sorry for him. With texts popping up onscreen and spinning headlines and elaborate computer terminals that scream "mid-90s hacker," The Fifth Estate is constantly announcing its discomfort with the digital realm of its story, like a middle-aged teacher who's wandered into the AV club by mistake.
None of this would matter, though, if The Fifth Estate could slow down enough to concentrate on the fascinating, infuriating man who scorned its very existence. The rift between Berg and Assange that allowed Berg to write his book to begin with is colossally important, but barely acknowledged as The Fifth Estate rushes toward its finale. The film asks us to believe in Assange and Berg's genuine friendship, even when Assange shows classic behavior of a cult leader-- demanding loyalty, disarming people with false intimacy-- and consistently aggrandizes himself above Berg and everyone else. Even if The Social Network hadn't done such a better job of showing the fraying of an emotional business relationship, The Fifth Estate's depiction of one of the most significant fractured friendships of recent years would feel toothless. Berg is a righteous patsy, Assange is a righteous jerk, and all the nuance that must have been there in real life is lost entirely.
Lucky for all of us, Assange has been brought to life already in Alex Gibney significantly superior We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wikileaks, a documentary much better suited to untangling WIkileaks' history and really examining what makes Assange tick. With Chelsea Manning still in prison and Wikileaks still inspiring other whistleblowers, Assange is as important as ever. Maybe Cumberbatch can polish up that performance for another biopic that's actually worthy of both of them.