Director Bill Condon takes us back to 2007 to introduce us to Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the founder of a then unknown and struggling organization called WikiLeaks. Assange invented a program to allow whistleblowers to remain anonymous when submitting information about their employer’s wrongdoings. The main goal of WikiLeaks was to protect the identity of those that submitted documents to the site. It is also in this time where we meet Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), Assange’s first hire and the man whose memoirs the film is based on.
What starts out as a humble venture soon garners international attention in the media. Publications such as the Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel (a German news magazine) start to coordinate the release of confidential U.S. Military documents leaked on the website. Aside from Assange’s growing fame, Condon takes time to provide a clear understanding of how the whole WikiLeaks process actually works. He explains how the initial submission goes through multiple layers that render attempts to find the location of the original point of entry impossible. The site itself does not have or maintain any of the documents themselves.
Condon uses his cast to both provide insight into the inner workings of WikiLeaks and the people behind it. The two lead actors in the film deliver strong performances. Benedict Cumberbach is notable as Assange, the troubled founder with zero social skills and issues that date back to his upbringing in a cult in Australia. Daniel Brühl is credible as Domscheit-Berg, the second in command and moral compass of the organization. Domscheit-Berg constantly pushes for one last fact check and a review of the consequence before they post.
Despite these interesting details, the film falls short is in its repeated use of the same devices. First among these is the constant use of dueling laptops to demonstrate that the characters are doing very important programming quickly. The other main offense is the multiple uses of the virtual server room with rows and rows of desks showing nameplates of the main players. Perhaps the worse sequence in the movie combines the two when Daniel and fellow programmer Marcus (Moritz Bleibtreu) set up their laptops side by side to take down the site. The scene is punctuated by Daniel flipping over desks in the virtual room to leave no doubt that the site has crashed.
Overall, The Fifth Estate does not venture deeply into the subject matter and the script is repetitive. The film even lacks any perspective from a whistleblower’s point of view. A secondary arc featuring three state department employees and a Libyan contact serves as a distraction from the main story. The Fifth Estate is an uneven effort that I cannot recommend despite good performances from the two lead actors.