Cumberbatch Commands The Screen In "The Fifth Estate"

The opening minutes of “The Fifth Estate” lay a foundation of an overly busy techno-thriller insistent on telling its real-life story through a kinetically frenzied but emotionally detached lens. A recipe for disaster. Thusly, the film veers dangerously close to bucking its audience right off the bat. In this light, the pic’s tepid pre-release notices are easily understandable. Many viewers – especially those not predisposed to its opaque subject matter – are likely to check out of the film before it gets it feet on the ground. Fair enough. But there are real treasures to be had here, the most prestigious of which is an effortless turn from Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange.

Assange is, of course, the man behind WikiLeaks – the most controversial website of the 21st century. “The Fifth Estate” is ostensibly a true story, based on a book by Assange’s former right hand man, Daniel Berg (played here by Daniel Brühl), and scripted by Josh Singer. In Cumberbatch and Brühl, director Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”) has two infinitely talented rising stars, and neither one disappoints.

For the uninitiated, Assange is an Australian computer hacker turned activist turned political lightning rod. Since its inception in 2006, WikiLeaks has drawn both effusive praise and scathing criticism for releasing highly sensitive military and diplomatic documents under the guise of free speech. Many political pundits have labeled Assange and his co-horts enemies of the United States, with a few even publically calling for his execution. This backdrop is the main thrust of the film, depicting the formation of Assange’s skeleton crew and their rise to international notoriety.

While a sequence of events doesn’t necessarily make a plot, this backdrop is more than enough to support what is, at heart, an engrossing character study. Assange’s real-life disapproval of the film and its lead actor accepting the role only makes Cumberbatch’s portrayal that much more fascinating – a portrayal that’s three parts comdemnation, one part admiration.

Cumberbatch’s decision to play the white-haired Assange from the inside out is a brilliant one. At the midpoint of the film, we see him weirdly writhing about on a dance floor all alone, bathed in an eerie yellow light. To us, he looks pathetic, borderline frightening. But from Assange’s point of view? Everyone in that room is looking at him. He’s the center of attention, and deservedly so.

By playing the character as a by-the-book protagonist, from his own point of view rather than the screenplay’s, Cumberbatch wordlessly relays more than any dialogue could. Julian Assange is the hero of his own story, a rock star in his own head, and no matter what sinister overtones a Hollywood screenwriter could dream up, we’re watching this film because of who the man is and what he’s done. Only a few moments of vulnerability – such as his mysterious but telling run-ins with an Australian cult – undermine his veneer of impenetrability.

As such, Cumberbatch’s performance is a fitting tribute to WikiLeaks and its creator. Despite any penchant the real-life Assange might have for lies, manipulation, and self-centeredness, he does what he does on his own terms and has ruffled a tonnage of feathers in the process. That the film sheds a mostly negative light on him is immaterial. His exploits are clearly film-worthy and his persona has provided us a pretty stunning performance by a top of the line actor. If that’s not enough vindication for a self-avowed attention seeker, I don’t know what is.

Daniel Brühl doesn’t have the benefit of working with striking white hair or piercing, doleful eyes, but he’s quite good as Daniel Berg. Berg is the more tech-oriented Chewbacca to Assange’s Han Solo, and Berg’s relationship with his girlfriend serves as an appropriately human undercurrent to the pic’s volatile subject matter. Brühl is the everyman, the working stiff, quietly in awe of his compatriot while also put off by Assange’s frequent surges of ego. When Berg ultimately becomes the voice of reason within WikiLeaks, it feels natural because of Brühl’s multi-dimensionality as an actor.

Where the film falters is in a relevant but pointless subplot involving a trio of United States government officials, played by Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie, and Stanley Tucci. These scenes are intended to provide perspective on the real world consequences of WikiLeaks, but they come off as wildly tangential and only serve to blunt the impact of the main storyline.

Condon’s stylistic flourishes are likely to be divisive. The director and his screenwriter paint with a broad brush in visualizing WikiLeaks’ world of digital secret sharing, frequently portraying Assange and Berg in a barren, apocalyptic landscape of desks and computers. This spacey imagery is effective to a point, as are some tastefully done text overlays. But it’s likely to throw viewers expecting a more straightforward method of storytelling, and it serves little thematic purpose. Fine eye candy? Yes, but out of place in an actionless movie.

“The Fifth Estate” is designed for a very particular moviegoer – one with interests in politics, current events, character studies, and acting showcases. Viewers that don’t fall under three or four of those umbrellas are likely to either get lost or bored, and the two-hour plus running time isn’t exactly conducive to persistence. But while the pic is far from perfect, it’s a deft portrait of an inimitably controversial figure – and one that features a wonderful lead performance. It’s worth your attention.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: October 18, 2013
Studio: DreamWorks Pictures
Director: Bill Condon
Screenwriter: Josh Singer
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Peter Capaldi, Carice van Houten, Dan Stevens, Stanley Tucci, Laura Linney
MPAA Rating: R (for language and some violence)