"The Fifth Estate" wants to be a "Social Network" with higher stakes. Not just about a megalomaniac visionary and his revolutionary website, lives are on the line, the film tells us time and time again. Unfortunately, "The Fifth Estate" struts around with all the self-importance of the Oscar-nominated film, but with none of the grace. It mistakes swagger for over-stylized sequences, a cheesy techno soundtrack, and silly visual metaphors. The dialogue knows only two tones: sanctimony and snark.
It's a shame too, because boy du jour Benedict Cumberbatch (who is also lighting up screens this year in "Star Trek Into Darkness", "12 Years a Slave" and the upcoming "August: Osage County") gives a thrilling performance as Julian Assange. He captures the WikiLeaks founder's charisma as well as his lisp. And as Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Assange's second in command, Daniel Bruhl (on his own rise after stealing the show in "Rush") ain't bad either. He plays the straight man to Assange's madness with the boyish scruff that recalls a younger Ewan McGregor.
No, the blame lays on a heavy-handed script, which goes out of its way to explain what is plainly obvious to the viewers, even those unfamiliar with Assange's still-being-written legacy. Like "Social Network," "The Fifth Estate" was written based on revelations of the scorned side kick, in this case Domscheit-Berg, who wrote a book about the ordeal.
"The Fifth Estate" captures the rise of WikiLeaks, the website that allows whisper blowers under the guise of the World Wide Web, to post secret documents, in full, without those pesky newspaper editors to spin the story. It starts with Daniel first meeting Julian and follows their increasingly influential leak operations, reaching full crescendo with 2010's Afghanistan War Logs dump.
In addition to the script issues, the story also gets bogged down by all it's the cyber-istic flourishes. Every Internet movie cliche is employed, as are cinematic field trips into the surreal to further poeticize the ironies of Julian's mission.
These problems are foreshadowed by the film's opening. First comes a credit montage that compresses 5,000 years of communication technology into 30 seconds; it looks like a relic of the late Disney World Epcot ride "Horizons." The film tells us, in computer font text, that we're in 2010. It then jumps back two years earlier, with the same text on the screen showing both "2007" and that it is "Two years earlier," as if we couldn't do the math ourselves. It's these kinds of in-your-face conclusions the film can't leave for viewers to uncover on their own.
Expect more of these kind of, "well, duh" moments as soon the characters open their mouths. And not just from Julian, who could believably be so preachy, but from Daniel, Daniel's girlfriend (Alicia Vikander) and a dogged journalist (David Thewlis) along for the ride. We watch as they all realize that Assange is a looned narcissist, whose ego has taken over his noble cause. Then we watch them talk about realizing that and all the other ill consequences of their crusade. Cumberbatch's performance is strong enough that it shouldn't take their verbalizations. Either way, nothing they say or do enriches what is already known from the headlines.
Not all of "The Fifth Estate" is bad. The stylistic gimmicks could almost work if "The Fifth Estate" fully embraced them as camp. Parts of the film are quite fun – Julian and Daniel darting around Europe, snubbing journalists, celebrating in underground club scenes (there's a scene of Cumberbatch dancing that the Internet must GIF immediately). And more than a few one-liners hit for laughs.
The film also includes a side story told from the perspective of the government agents dealing with the repercussions of the leaks. Here too, Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci perform solidly as mid-level state bureaucrats. With some rejiggering, one could have imagined "The Fifth Estate" as a more equal match up of WikiLeaks vs. the U.S. government, with the latter given more importance and the former more restraint.
More than anything, "The Fifth Estate" feels like a lost opportunity, considering the source material and the talent that showed up to bring it to life. The legacy of WikiLeaks and the fate of Assange – currently hiding out in London's Ecuadorian embassy – are still being hammered out, so it's nearly impossible to meditate on any long-term implications. But as a close reading of a recent headline-making story, it doesn't reveal much either.