In 2010, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin pulled off a rather marvelous feat. They made a movie about the Internet, Facebook origin story The Social Network, that was urgent, dark, scary, exciting. It's a strange irony that, though we spend so much time on it and derive so much entertainment from the various things it enables us to do, when on film, the Internet tends to come across boring or silly or both. Sure we have some B-grade classics like The Net and even the hilariously sexed-up Hackers to fondly remember as paranoid flights of fancy from a more innocent time, but for the most part, the Internet doesn't make for good movie material. That fact has perhaps never been on better, or worse, display than in Bill Condon's new film about WikiLeaks, The Fifth Estate. A shiftily didactic and oddly tone-deaf film, this wanly issue-y drama mostly evades when it should be enlightening.
Like The Social Network, Condon's film deals with an egomaniacal computer genius who single-handedly — well, depending on who you ask, of course — changes the contemporary world as we know it. But instead of a hoodie-sporting college student who stumbles onto something massive while trying to shame coeds who are mean to him, The Fifth Estate gives us a mysterious, mercurial career hacker named Julian Assange, here played with beady-eyed focus by Benedict Cumberbatch. Assange created WikiLeaks, a repository of classified documents and other protected information meant to shed harsh and unflinching light on corrupt corporate and governmental institutions, with a noble and humanistic vision. But as The Fifth Estate argues heavily, and only slightly convincingly, his is a mission muddled by narcissism and paranoia, and by the kind of righteous stubbornness, a blinkered surety of purpose, that hamstrings many a mad genius. This is heady, important subject matter, all at once psychological, ethical, and political. Alas Condon's film takes a fairly easy, and frustrating, route through all of this gray territory and thus does disservice to all sides of the argument.
The film traces WikiLeaks from roughly 2007 to 2010, following the story of its rise to power and fame through the eyes of Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), Assange's right-hand man who left the organization following a dust-up over the publication, in 2010, of more than 90,000 classified U.S. military documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan. But in the early days, Berg and Assange are fervent allies, working doggedly for the greater good under the increasingly suspicious eye of various government agencies. The film follows the evolution of Berg and Assange's relationship as it hops from Berlin to Reykjavik and other sleek, gray northern European capitals, tracing in rudimentary, faint lines the trajectory of this whistle-blowing phenomenon. But rather than doing the harder, more interesting work of truly investigating what makes these kinds of dangerous passions tick, Condon chooses to give us a simplistic show of light and noise. Hacker parties and conferences are techno-thumping and bright-hued, computer processes whir across the screen in ain't-it-cool jumbles. (The camera hardly ever stops moving, as if to distract us from the film's lazily broad strokes.) The film's approach to illustrating the complex sprawl of the cyber world feels almost embarrassingly dated — it insists that we be impressed by the mere power of the Web, a lesson we don't really need again, all the way out here in 2013.
What's more interesting, of course, is the man behind all this dissemination, and in fleshing out this curious character Cumberbatch does the absolute best he can with an often ham-handed, cliche-wielding script. His Assange is both flinty and fragile. He has the dismissive air of a narcissist mostly oblivious to the world beyond his own ambitions, but he's also wounded, hypersensitive. There's a chord of bitter melancholy rippling under his pale, thin skin that makes him lash out, raging at perceived slights and betrayals in punitive and petty ways. Cumberbatch's is an insightful, mesmerizing performance. It's so good, in fact, so unnerving and off-putting, that Condon seems scared to get too close. He instead chooses, working off of Josh Singer's clunky script, to make Berg our ostensible narrator. As played by Brühl, Berg is a cipher, a dull and mostly agency-less avatar for an audience that is smarter than they're trusted to be. There's an attempt to humanize Berg by adding some tension with a girlfriend, played by the up-and-coming actress Alicia Vikander with a tenacity that transcends the thin material given to her, but mostly he is a blank, a platform for the film's rough-hewn interpretation of Assange and his skirting of ethical lines.
We've all seen enough of these protege movies to know that Berg will eventually buck against Assange's amoral drive, just as Bud Fox stood up to Gordon Gekko, but the trouble is that here, with this real-life story, nothing is as tidy as Condon and company want it to be. Sure the film plays at ambiguity and ambivalence, but in the end it makes something of a ghoul of Assange. When the massive classified data dump looms, rumpled newsmen plead with Assange not to release unredacted documents, for fear of endangering assets in hostile nations, and we meet some of the government folks especially concerned with keeping these secrets, well, secret. They're played by Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci, two deeply likable actors here given the cheap job of putting a deceptively upbeat, earnest face on American diplomacy and its clandestine activities. We're also introduced to one of these assets, a Libyan official played by the equally warm and sympathetic Alexander Siddig. This attempt to lend humanity to the machinations that Assange is so hellbent on exposing doesn't so much provide the necessary shading as much as it further alienates the strange, white-haired Assange. He is the odd freak with no moral scruples, while these familiar and friendly faces are the good-ish guys of the institutions, practical people suffering under the extreme and careless ideology of a perhaps delusional, nearly Quixotic rebel. The film tries to argue for Assange's cause in a final monologue delivered by David Thewlis (another charmer used to offset Assange's unpleasantness), but it's too little too late.
Really though, all of this analysis is probably giving The Fifth Estate too much consideration. The bulk of the film is simply a dreary, tedious slog through a by-the-numbers, episodic morass of Big Moments, all telegraphed to the audience with the subtlety of a pop-up ad. By the time Berg is destroying the metaphorical WikiLeaks newsroom that he's created in his head — rows and rows of desks sitting under a gray and troubled sky; there's even a desk with a name plate that says "J. Assange" on it — The Fifth Estate has become what feels like a remedial and awkward dissection of the Internet and its seemingly limitless powers, done by someone who doesn't seem to know or care much about them. Perhaps Assange has been right to publicly criticize this film. But the problem is not so much that it takes a strong stand against WikiLeaks and its dedication to unfiltered access. It's that it reduces this great and serious debate to a boring, "aren't computers wild" sketch. It's ultimately vaguely insulting, to all parties involved, and employs garish technical flourishes where quiet introspection would have been far more useful. What a waste of a fascinating topic The Fifth Estate is. At least Hackers had Fisher Stevens on a skateboard.