The rise and fall of whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, told through the prism of the relationship between founder Julian Assange (Cumberbatch) and techie activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Brühl).
Is The Fifth Estate a cunning ruse by the intelligence services to lure Julian Assange out of his embassy bolt-hole? Imagine the agony! The hottest young Hollywood talent acting out the story of your life and you can’t check it out. What kind of raging egomaniac could resist? Well, he’d be wise to try. Bill Condon’s account of the WikiLeaks brouhaha is a plodding and preachy film that treads well-worn ground without adding anything new or particularly animating what’s known.
Taking the story from the site’s early days, it charts the outfit’s initial headline-grabbing scoops, from the publishing of the membership of the BNP, complete with addresses and telephone numbers, to the Chelsea, née Bradley, Manning episode that brought the whole cyber-edifice crashing down. David Thewlis is mildly embarrassing as Nick Davies, a Guardian investigative hack prone to storming dramatically into meetings. Peter Capaldi, meanwhile, looks anxious and grips his chin a lot as editor Alan Rusbridger. Benedict Cumberbatch is effective as Assange, insofar as his performance is one-note and creepy, but Daniel Brühl struggles with the underwritten role of co-conspirator Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Condon, working from an uneven, pedestrian screenplay by ex-West Wing writer Josh Singer, at first attempts to give the piece a post-Bourne patina complete with jittery titles and insistent score (courtesy of Carter Burwell), but soon a fondness for hackneyed visual devices emerges. When Assange fiddles with his files, luminous characters skitter across his face. An effect Ridley Scott used to great effect in Alien. Nearly 40 years ago.
There are technical saving graces: Tobias A. Schliessler’s cinematography and Mark Tildeseley’s production design atmospherically conjure the throbbing techno clubs and coffee shops in which the plotters gather, while Condon gets the most out of his European locations, particularly the blasted alien moonscapes of Iceland against which Assange looks almost at home. In a The Man Who Fell To Earth kind of way.
Disappointingly dull account of a tale desperately in need of a sharper screenplay and some directorial vim. Might as well wait for the Blu-ray, Jules.