THEY GOT THE HAIR RIGHT: In the WikiLeaks thriller-drama, Benedict Cumberbatch (L) stars as Julian Assange alongside Daniel Brühl, who plays a former colleague of the activist.
City Paper grade: B-
It’s often said that journalism is the first draft of history. The Fifth Estate, released three years after the disclosure of classified U.S. government documents that brought Julian Assange’s muckraking website WikiLeaks to the world’s attention, is at best the second draft. Working from a script by West Wing alum Josh Singer, itself an adaptation of a book by former Assange associate Daniel Domscheit-Berg, director Bill Condon’s film is something of an info-dump itself, a collection of incidents without an animating point of view.
As Assange, Benedict Cumberbatch is only slightly more human than his Star Trek villain, a cunning megalomaniac bent on shining sunlight into the darkest of government hidey-holes. In one self-mythologizing speech, he declaims that the beginning of conspiracy is “two men and a secret,” whereas “one moral man ... can topple the most repressive of regimes.” And so the information-wants-to-be-free credo finds itself welded to the Hollywood myth of individualism, in which institutions are reduced to representative figures who can thus be toppled as easily as any flesh-and-blood human.
The Fifth Estate has plenty of techno-flash, with a gleaming sense of international intrigue on loan from the Bourne series, but nothing like the intelligence that could untangle a thorny, even defining, debate. Newspapers are stodgy and slow, government is secretive, information activists begin with noble intentions and are corrupted by a sense of their own power — and so on. It’s not wrong, exactly; just old hat, a conventional and contained recitation of a story that is neither. On WikiLeaks itself, Assange posted a version of the movie’s script with extensive annotations purporting to clear up its misrepresentations, but there’s little danger of anyone taking The Fifth Estate as fact.
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