Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate is an edgy and exciting drama about WikiLeaks and its founder, the renegade Australian journalist/anarchist Julian Assange. As played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Assange is a tall, slit-eyed, and emotionally hooded creature who presents himself as a new kind of information warrior: a subversive of the cyber era who will publish anything that exposes the sins of corporations and governments. Cumberbatch, in long, stringy white-blond hair that looks a bit too much like the wig it is, does a commanding impersonation of the real man’s imperiousness and louche narcissism. His Assange has a pout of aggrievement fixed on his soft, pale, babyish features. He’s a real contradiction — a reptilian idealist.
Assange passes off WikiLeaks as an ‘organization,’ but it’s really just him, working with fake email addresses and a courtly European assistant, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), who helps man the keyboards. Yet as these two post unedited documents and videos, revealing injustice around the world — corruption at a Swiss bank, death squads in Kenya, the murder of two journalists by U.S. troops in Iraq — The Fifth Estate generates a nervous, almost manic version of the let’s-bring-down-the-kingpins rush of a ’70s conspiracy thriller.
Condon keeps his camera up close to the actors, plugging us into the electricity of their mission. At the same time, the movie asks: When does the unrestricted flow of information start to destroy all it’s out to save? Assange comes on as a reporter, and in a sense he is, but he’s like Woodward or Bernstein as a member of the Weather Underground. He’s reckless and barely cares if he hurts civilians, so he isn’t just outside the system — he’s outside the human connection that holds the system together. Condon is shrewd enough to depict Assange not as a hero but as a scoundrel crusader who tests the power of the Internet. The Fifth Estate is flawed (it grips the brain but not the heart), yet it feverishly exposes the tenor of whistle-blowing in the brave new world, with the Internet as a billboard for anyone out to spill secrets. Call it the anti-social network. B+