Here’s the big question hanging over the head of The Fifth Estate: do we contextualize it based on content or structure? Bill Condon’s first post-Twilight film bites off more than it can chew, but it’s difficult to say whether that’s because of the subject matter – being the origins and rise of both Wikileaks and its controversial founder, Julian Assange – or because of the production’s unavoidable biopic bent; even at the tender age of only seven (which amounts to light years on the web), Wikileaks can already claim a rich, storied, complex history, so much so that two hours feels scarcely enough to scratch the surface of its conception or paint more than a sketch of Assange.
So where, then, does The Fifth Estate go wrong? Like so many biopics, the film is driven by an inexplicable need to cover as much ground as possible within the limitations of its medium; a rare director, like David Fincher, can pull off the Herculean feat of making that approach palatable in a rare film, like The Social Network, surely the gold standard for biopic filmmaking in this decade. Condon isn’t necessarily aiming that high – his movie will inevitably draw many comparisons to Fincher’s work, if only based on taglines – but he ends up missing the mark around the level of Jobs. “As much” quickly gives way to “too much”; economy falls prey to narrative bloat.
The Fifth Estate, as a result, stutters along for the span of its running time, alternating between working perfectly and operating clunkily in fits and spurts before shuddering to a helpless climax long after overstaying its welcome. That’s an overstatement of the film’s unwieldiness; there are stretches of story here that thoroughly enrapture, most of them involving sparring matches between Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl, who play, respectively, Assange himself and Daniel Domscheit-Berg, formerly Assange’s technological activist-in-arms and, today, estranged from Wikileaks’ operations. Ostensibly, the film is about their efforts to expose corruption and fight for social justice, as well as institutional transparency, but in truth Condon leans on their friendship to supply his movie’s core.
That’s easily the smartest decision he makes in the entire picture; Cumberbatch and Brühl, both excellent in totally disparate ways, are utterly convincing as they gamely attempt to replicate the camaraderie between these two men. Strictly speaking, their conjuring that bond out of thin air – I don’t know that the very real men they’re portraying were ever quite so buddy-buddy as the film depicts, though that’s, perhaps, being generous. For modern pop culture comparison, Cumberbatch plays the Sheldon Cooper to Brühl’s Leonard Hofstadter, only Assange, in the once and future Khan’s hands, is far less cuddly than that. There’s a constant strain of volatility hanging in the air whenever they’re in communication, as though Berg’s normalcy might at any moment provide the catalyst necessary to set his chum off on any number of paranoid rants or expulsions of TMI.
To a point, there’s a certain pleasure to be found in the ways these characters interact with one another as their escapades burgeon in scope and scale. The film begins as they lock horns with Julius Baer before moving on to their dust-ups with the church of Scientology and Sarah Palin; halfway through (thereabouts), we get to the good stuff, the stuff that, more likely than not, brought Wikileaks to the attention of the mainstream in the first place. But, wouldn’t you know it, as Condon breezes through each of these occurrences, most of which could provide the substance of an entire film on their own merit, he ends up saying little and less about them. Instead, he treats Assange’s accomplishments – and they are that, no matter how you feel about his politics or his tactics – as though he’s ticking off boxes on a checklist.
In other words, what he’s doing with The Fifth Estate feels remarkably dispassionate and by-the-numbers, a shock considering that this is the same person who made conventional storytelling so entertaining, smart, and compellingly dramatic with Kinsey nearly a decade ago. Admittedly, that film had a few benefits which The Fifth Estate does not, the most important of which is that there’s a definitive start and end to its protagonist’s tale. (Plus, there’s that whole “confrontation and dismantling of sexual taboos” thing.) But the story of Julian Assange hasn’t ended yet, something the film takes care to remind us of in its coda, and by extension the story of Wikileaks hasn’t ended, either. In point of fact, it’s just begun, which ends up being something of a stumbling block in Condon’s path toward a bipartisan examination of Assange’s life and times as a provocateur and freedom fighter.
The other problem here is stylization. Nobody in the history of the medium has sussed out how to successfully articulate the essence of hacking on celluloid, so maybe Condon can’t really be blamed for falling into the same traps as, well, every single one of his peers. He does pull out a couple of nice flourishes here and there – his representation of the Internet as one big, open-air cubicle farm with an Assange at every desk, banging away at their keyboards with a mad glee, is pretty nifty, though he ends up taking the image too far in the third act by unintentionally aping Apple’s “1984” commercial.
And that’s disappointing, really, because it’s the best idea brought to bear in a collection of aesthetic ticks that don’t quite pass muster. Make no mistake, The Fifth Estate has a few things going for it – great performances, for one, the kind that will keep the film from being forgotten in the shuffle of time. (If only for Cumberbatch’s work, which inspires cult-like worship over his rejection of nuance in favor of cranking it up at every opportunity.) But for as much ground as the film manages to cover, it’s remarkably void of meaning; that moral appears to be that Assange has changed the ebb and flow of information in the information age, but if you read newspapers with only cursory interest, you already know that – and where’s the fun of a Wikileaks film if we’re not learning something new?