The Fifth Estate (15)
Dir: Bill Condon
With: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, Peter Capaldi
Runtime: 128 minutes
NOT being a primo hacker like Julian Assange, the subject of this drama about the rise and crash of the WikiLeaks founder, it is not in my power to unlock the secrets of the rich and powerful, divulge who really killed JFK, or transfer squillions from some dictator's offshore account to our pockets. Sorry.
I can tell you three things, though. First, should you partake of The Fifth Estate this weekend, chances are the popcorn muncher in the next seat will not be Mr Assange, he being unavoidably detained in the Ecuadorian Embassy for the forseeable.
Two, he won't miss much.
Three, filmmakers should steer clear of journalism if they are going to be as po-faced and plodding about the trade as they are here.
There has already been a fine documentary about WikiLeaks. Alex Gibney's We Steal Secrets was a lacerating portrait of Assange, showing him to be a man who started out with best intentions but who, through personal flaws and a galloping case of egomania, brought himself low.
More importantly, it gave equal weight to the story of Bradley Manning, the US soldier who handed Assange his biggest scoop with the Afghan war files. Gibney's documentary, by giving the stage to talking heads inside and outside the Establishment, explored where the "fifth estate" of whistleblowers and hackers came from, and where it could be heading.
Bill Condon's picture, in contrast, does not advance the story one iota, surely a flaw in any picture about making the news.
Playing Assange is Benedict Cumberbatch, the shape-shifting actor who can flit from Star Trek to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy without breaking sweat. From Australian accent and floppy hair to imperious stare and beanpole physique, he makes for an uncannily accurate Assange.
After a quick montage about communication through the ages to suggest that we are talking history here, no less, we leap into the Assange tale just as the Afghan war files story is about to break.
From New York to London to Berlin, newsrooms are buzzing with folk far too handsome to be journalists. (How handsome? Downton Abbey's late, lamented Matthew Crawley is one, for heaven's sake. Valiantly attempting to strike a balance is the ever excellent, but no oil painting, Peter Capaldi, playing a newspaper editor.)
Besides being unconvincingly dishy, reporters tear around excitably and generally behave in ways no real journalist ever would. This lot make the teenage inksters of Press Gang look like Redford and Hoffman in All The President's Men. From this pantomime hullabaloo we rewind back to 2007 to tell the tale of how it all began. Mercifully, someone resists the temptation to have a spinning newspaper to signifying the turning back of time.
At a conference on hacking, Assange meets an impressionable tech-head, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Bruhl, impressive in Rush and ditto here) and dazzles him with tales of a world without information firewalls. Soon, the two are taking on the Establishment and attracting the attention of the dead tree media who feed on their scoops.
A picture begins to emerge of Assange as a cove with more flaws than a two bob vase. His back story is crow-barred into the film via frequent chats with Daniel in which Assange is taken to task for his behaviour, only to give up some revelation about his past by way of excuse. It is hardly subtle.
Condon (Kinsey, Dreamgirls) displays a similarly heavy hand when it comes to filling out the story. He adds and adds, inserting paragraph after paragraph of sub-plot and new characters, until the tale starts to sprawl all over the screen. While Assange is busy becoming famous and Daniel is falling in love, for instance, the action cuts to the State Department in Washington, where Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci are about to add another story strand about the perils of full disclosure and partial redaction.
The war files dump is by far the most exciting part of the story, and Condon gives it some welly. Even if the dramatisation is rather silly, something is plainly happening. The film duly rallies, but by this point the poor old cinemagoer will likely be too exhausted to do likewise.
No matter how busy the story, the picture can always find time to stick the boot into Assange. Besides being an egomaniac, we learn that his socks stink, his hair is chip pan clean, and his chat-up lines would embarrass Benny Hill. Lest you be in any doubt, the picture is based in part on books by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and two of the reporters involved.
Assange gets the white hair of shame, they get the white suits of heroism. By way of striking a balance at the end, Cumberbatch's Assange is allowed to rubbish said books, but by then the reputation bashing is done.
As Assange says at one point, defending his decision not to redact every document published online, "WikiLeaks doesn't edit". But a movie, if it is to grip the viewer, needs an editor, someone to separate the real story from the score settling and navel gazing. Without one, this is all so much sound bites and fury, signifying little.