Movie Review: ‘The Fifth Estate’ dodges important questions

Though extremely well-acted and flaunting a slick visual style, “The Fifth Estate” is far too easygoing, far too unchallenging for a movie about such a controversial topic.

It stars the tremendously talented Benedict Cumberbatch as the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, an enigmatic yet strangely charismatic figure whose long white hair and Australian accent make him instantly recognizable.

Wikileaks took the world by storm in April of 2010, when it leaked footage of an airstrike in Baghdad that showed American soldiers killing civilians and two Reuters reporters. The anti-secrecy organization followed the leak by releasing Afghan War documents as well as thousands of classified United States diplomatic cables, all within a very short period of time.

The film depicts these events and the world’s response to them, but it also serves as an origin story, following Assange and his right-hand man, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl), as they build their online infrastructure on which anonymous sources can submit classified intel without fear of exposure.

The relationship between Julian and Daniel and their inevitable falling out is the core of the film’s conflict despite its pretensions of examining how WikiLeaks has changed the flow of information in the digital age, for better or worse.

Thus, “The Fifth Estate” works much better as a depiction of how unrestrained idealism can disrupt human relations, than it does as a biopic or a comprehensive study of new communications technology and its impact on government transparency.

Julian, who is paradoxically incorrigible and revolutionary, is not easy being friends with. His inherent cynicism of government and suspicion of others is clunkily explained through a pointless backstory that is seen in hazy flashbacks. His ego is the size of a data center and is just as immobile, often getting in the way of Wikileaks’ mission.

He wants to be the face of the future, but is more often than not a distraction from the issues at hand, not unlike “The Fifth Estate” itself, which can’t quite decide what kind of movie it wants to be.

It’s got all the right names, places and ideas, but it doesn’t do anything with them. Is this a story about Assange? Or the future of information flow? Or government secrecy? Or friendship? Is the movie a political thriller? Is it a drama?

Such ambivalence is no doubt a consequence of trying to tell a vastly complicated ongoing story. Why risk coming down on the wrong side of history when you can just play it safe, generally depicting two sides of an argument without committing to either? The film is either too ambitious, or not ambitious enough.

“The Fifth Estate” tries to escape such criticisms by depicting a real world interview with Assange in which he muses on the elusivity of truth, that it’s up to the people to decide what is real and what is not, as if openly discrediting itself somehow gives the film some semblance of credibility.

It’s one of those, “Now I’m no rocket scientist, but … ” statements that always rings hollow.

Strange, that a film about about a man defined by his incendiary rhetoric and revolutionary ideas, has absolutely nothing to say.