After watching The Fifth Estate, you’ll be yourself one key question. Not about WikiLeaks, or Julian Assange, but about the film itself: what the hell does it want to be about? WikiLeaks is such a controversial issue that taking a stance on the matter would be divisive, but it would give the film the heft it needs in order to function as a substantial story. Instead, the film mistakes shady characterizations and a meandering story as complexity, deriving no nuance from the supposedly complicated relationship between Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his partner-in-crime Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl). Assange gets brief backstory as we learn of a troubled childhood and the lack of companions he’s had over the years; he also seems highly asexual through the film, not necessarily because he doesn’t have time but because he doesn’t really care about relationships. It’s a strange characterization that appears unintentional.
Daniel, on the other hand, is a hacker who works for a computer company but spends most of his time locked up in a storage closet working on WikiLeaks material. He flirts often with a co-worker, Anke (Alicia Vikander), and they start up a romantic relationship but go through traditional romantic struggles. He’s focused on work all the time, putting it before her, and she doesn’t like that. This is one of The Fifth Estate‘s many problems: it includes one female character through the entire film, and makes her seem irrational and irrelevant to the story. Vikander’s a very talented actress (look at her breakout work in last year’s excellent A Royal Affair, and even her small role in Anna Karenina), yet she has nothing to work with. Brühl is a capable actor as well who provides an Oscar nomination-worthy performance in Rush, yet his character is more of an enigma than Assange. He’s the protagonist, but where’s the tension coming from within his relationships?
The film feels artificial to its core, with no situation stemming from a logical preceding one. The developments are trite and the film’s far too plot heavy to make an impact on a viewer emotionally. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, the excellent documentary released earlier this year, gives far more insight into this polarizing topic and actually takes a stance. That’s where The Fifth Estate falters as a whole. Cumberbatch is an actor that many seem high on, but he feels miscast here as Assange, making him cold and ultimately unforgiving. He plays Assange like a child, which may be a testament to the formulaic script by Singer, who adapted from Leigh, Harding, and Berg’s books. Condon does not provide any revelation behind the camera, either, not helping the stance and not bringing out enough in the performances. The Fifth Estate is a mess of a feature, with some profound message lying far deep underneath its mush.
Grade: ★★ (out of 5)