As the world doesnt seem to have quite made up its mind about Julian Assange, it seems fitting that the new film about him and the rise of WikiLeaks has an ambivalence about it as well.
The Fifth Estate takes us inside the hackers milieu, the personalities and news stories that blew up thanks to WikiLeaks. It visits the very real consequences of Assanges actions. But it never gets inside the man, what drives him, what justifies the arrogant self-righteousness that he built his worldview upon.
Director Bill Condon (Kinsey / Dreamgirls) dazzles us with the whirl of Assanges crusade, following him from Africa to Europe, zipping from one trouble spot, where the release of secret documents might make a difference, to another.
In a breathless two hours, the film lets us see the man through the eyes of a new recruit. Young Euro-hacker Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl of Rush) is in awe of this international man of mystery.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Assange as a somewhat justified paranoid, a ghost who is that moving target that no assassin or government can (he believes) hit. He is a man above the mayhem he creates, rarely second-guessing what hes doing.
Assange sees conspiracies everywhere and has a sneering contempt for mainstream news organizations (the fourth estate) he figures WikiLeaks displaces.
Bruhl brings a youthful enthusiasm and innocence to Berg, an insider in the hacker world lured by the charisma and convinced of the rightness of their cause, but young enough to change his mind as he receives new information.
And the aloof, guarded Cumberbatch plays Assange as a mixture of brilliance, hucksterism, ego and naivete. He carries the baggage of an actor who plays smart, with a menacing edge. His Assange fumes at the corporate overlords, corrupt bankers and African dictators, but childishly lumps everyone who wants to keep secrets into the same contemptible pile.
But with every revelation, from his troubled childhood to his skirt-chasing to the hair color and the stories about how it turned white, the hustler shows through and the mystery deepens.
For all the technical sparkle, Condon never quite connects all the dots about Assange and how this revolution that he claims he is leading is part of the zeitgeist, the global strain of anarchy that resulted in uprisings in the Middle East, the Occupy Movement, marches in Europe and the tea party in the United States.