By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Whether you view Julian Assange as a hero or a villain, as an idealist or a narcissist, as a watchdog or an attack dog, The Fifth Estate will disappoint as a remote and lifeless drama.
The Fifth Estate is an unauthorized biodrama about the whistle-blowing web site WikiLeaks, and the relationship between its founder and editor-in-chief, Julian Assange, and his German co-conspirator and technology activist, Daniel Domscheit-Berg. (The title a reference to the media as the proverbial “fourth estate.”)
The Fifth Estate may fancy itself a cyberthriller, but the thrills are few and far between. Gripping it’s anything but: inherently interesting subject matter is hereby rendered dry and curiously uninvolving in this flat and plodding nonfiction tale.
Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Assange, who refused to collaborate on the film and has publicly disparaged it, while Daniel Bruhl plays Assange’s onetime partner and friend Domscheit-Berg. It was their bitter parting of the ways that inspired the 2011 memoir on which some of the film is based.
Director Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Parts 1 and 2, Dreamgirls, Gods and Monsters, Kinsey) focuses on the site’s early-on scoops, when WikiLeaks worked cooperatively with The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, and released various classified governmental and corporate documents.
Ultimately, the film invites us to contemplate just how much secrecy we believe to be necessary in a free society.
But we remain at a considerable distance from everything on display here, especially the principals but including the principles. And the ideas.
Both Cumberbatch and Bruhl remain one-note throughout, for which they have to take some of the blame and share it with Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer, whose script -– based on two books, WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, by David Leigh and Luke Harding, and Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website, by Domscheit-Berg -– is bursting at the seams with exposition but never really comes to dramatic life and, moreover, fails to even approach the urgency and adrenaline implicit in those two print titles.
Worst of all, we gain precious little psychological or motivational insight into what ultimately makes the two main characters tick.
The film comes a bit more alive in the late going when screen veterans Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci, playing composite characters working for the US State Department, show the two leads how it’s done, injecting some much-needed flesh-and-blood energy to the proceedings.
But they’re too peripheral to the narrative to rescue the film, or us, from our emotional indifference.
So we’ll leak 2 stars out of 4 for an information-heavy but impact-light docudrama. The Fifth Estate is leaky, all right, in all the wrong ways.