For a film about a man who made banks teeter and governments totter, The Fifth Estate is surprisingly boring. Certainly, this was a tough film to make; the serious challenge is to get under the icy skin of Julian Assange—played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is good, even if Julian Assange plays Julian Assange so much better. (Plus Assange is presented as the flawed-hero type here—and when you see him in the far better documentary We Steal Secrets, he's a much more multi-faceted and diabolical type.)
Director Bill Condon sees Assange as a martyr whose belief in freedom of information was so pure that he didn't care what risk that information brought, or how much it might damage the people around him. Avoiding the later sex scandal, The Fifth Estate focuses on the two-year sleigh ride through snowy Europe that Assange gave his German colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg. The German is played by Daniel Bruhl, who was Niki Lauda in Rush; he's portrayed as an honest if drab Berlinese activist with a girlfriend who wants him home. (It's 2013 and they're still doing the "you're dinner's cold" scene.) The subplot concerns one of the people whose career suffers because of Wikileaks: an undersecretary of State (Laura Linney) whose source is burned, and whose private reports are exposed. Blame for this movie's dullness falls heavy on scriptwriter Josh Singer (of The West Wing), who glides past a point of view to get stuck in a morass of wishy-washy liberalism. Cumberbatch's exemplary work as Sherlock Holmes sources this performance. There, he was exciting and enigmatic—here, he's wetter, in keeping with the film's big idea that Assange's problem was childhood trauma.
Bruhl, who played the Austrian racer in Rush, is the kind of recessive actor that the cinema needs—the Joseph Cotten type--but he hasn't found the director yet that'll make that recessiveness interesting. Condon does what he can to get some visual dynamism in a picture about people who tap at keyboards all day: scenes take place in a symbolic Matrixy mile-wide room full of desks representing cyberspace. Glowing, multi-colored text flashes on faces, like the opening titles running on the belly-dancer in From Russia With Love. But the pathetically written ending about the possibilities of the future reflect what the director knows: it's just too early to tell about Assange and his methods.
R; 124 min