As the world doesn't seem to have quite made up its mind about Julian Assange, it seems fitting that the new film about him and the rise of WikiLeaks has an ambivalence about it as well.
“The Fifth Estate” takes us inside hackers' milieu, the personalities and news stories that blew up thanks to WikiLeaks. It visits the very real consequences of Assange's actions. But it never gets inside the man, what drives him, what justifies the arrogant self-righteousness that he built his worldview upon.
Director Bill Condon (“Kinsey,” “Dreamgirls”) dazzles us with the whirl ofAssange's crusade, following him from Africa to Europe, zipping from one trouble spot, where the release of secret documents might make a difference, to another.
In a breathless two hours, the film lets us see the man through the eyes of a new recruit and close associate. Young Euro-hacker Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl of “Rush”) is in awe of this international man of mystery, charismatic in his shock of white hair, his steely determination to set up a website run by legions of whistle blowers, just like himself, and quoting Oscar Wilde as he does: “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.” Benedict Cumberbatch plays Assange as a somewhat justified paranoid, a frequent flier who jets hither and yon, a ghost who is that moving target that no assassin or government can (he believes) hit. He is a man above the mayhem he creates, rarely second-guessing what he's doing as he persuades contacts that they are just one of many thousands, that his anonymous-tip website is bullet-proof in its security.
Which was probably the attitude of the various banks and governments whose security his whistle blowers breached.
Assange sees conspiracies everywhere and has a sneering contempt for mainstream news organizations (the fourth estate) he figures WikiLeaks displaces. Only nobody is noticing WikiLeaks at the time Berg is recruited. That's before the Bradley Manning cache of military and U.S. State Dept. communications come to them. That's before the press conferences, the collaboration with the hated newspaper and magazine journalists, who sort through the raw data that Assange cavalierly and naively believed would be damning by itself, with the professional reporters providing context and some semblance of objectivity and responsibility.