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+