** (out of four)
You could fault arrogant, deceitful, unethical Julian Assange for a lot, but you can't blame him for resenting “The Fifth Estate.” Based on a book co-written by Assange’s former colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg, this scattered thriller presents the WikiLeaks founder (played by Benedict Cumberbatch of “Star Trek Into Darkness” and this week’s “12 Years a Slave”) as a manipulative villain. Worse, it puts maximum blame on Assange’s shoulders for questionable journalism while minimizing the horrific secrets he helped bring to light.
Clearly, this is complex subject matter. An undeniable hypocrite who advocates transparency he doesn’t practice, Assange deserves indictment for reckless choices and recognition for innovation. Frantically directed by Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls,” “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn”), though, the film’s attempt at balance involves pointing fingers and pointing more fingers and government types (Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci) in an office vaguely wondering, “Who is really to blame?”
Blame for “The Fifth Estate” doesn’t land on Cumberbatch, who convincingly embodies the alternately charismatic and difficult button-pusher whom Alex Gibney also depicted in his superior doc “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.” Because of his ego and refusal to reveal all of himself, Assange’s seemingly impulsive decision to work closely with Berg (Daniel Bruhl of “Rush”) appears like the act of a man who wants a lackey. “The Fifth Estate” eventually shows Berg wanting to verify sources when Assange rushes to move forward with leaks, but in the film it’s rarely clear how the WikiLeaks team receives and processes information. Doing nothing to clarify what many already know, this movie about pulling back the veil of secrecy actually reveals little itself.
After all, by now Chelsea Manning (who leaked thousands upon thousands of classified military documents to Assange’s site) has been sentenced to 35 years, and Assange has spent the past few years as a recluse. A film about this controversial figure shouldn’t waste time with the woman (Alicia Vikander) whom Berg mostly ignores in order to help Assange. “The Fifth Estate” needed to consider what other procedural loopholes this man unwittingly identified and what changes resulted from the leaks. Are we better off with this ruthless, ethically unstable pursuit of fully disclosed information, or is this a case of two wrongs not making a right?
Sadly, “The Fifth Estate” prefers a single scapegoat to a nuanced discussion. It’s a tangled movie that doesn’t start at the beginning; jumps all over the world and time; and, toward the end, features a character saying, “Most good stories start at the beginning.” Groan.
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