The Fifth Estate should have been an exciting, dynamic dramatisation of one of the most extraordinary series of events of our time. Instead it is a rather disappointing, at times boring, film which just makes you sad for what could have been.
The story told is of the breakthrough of the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks from scourge of big business to the most feared media organisation in the world, courtesy of the release of the Afghan and Iraq war logs as well as the cables from US Ambassadors, all received courtesy of Private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning.
We get to know Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the founder of WikiLeaks, through Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl) an IT hotshot who meets Assange at a human rights convention. Julian and Daniel latch onto each other, bonding through their shared interests in hacking and the pursuit of justice.
But in spite of Daniel holding Assange almost in awe, no real bro-mance develops between them. Their friendship - its rise and its fall - is the heart of this film, but it's not a particularly strong heartbeat. So when it all inevitably goes sour, as Assange's power lust and paranoid insecurity sours their relationship, it's not really clear that much has been lost.
So is the film a character assassination of Julian Assange, as the man himself says? Well if Assange thinks this is criticism, then I'm guessing he mistakes sycophancy for balanced feedback - which could actually explain a lot about the man.
No, this is not a character assassination at all. Rather the film goes out of its way to explain all of Assange's many, many flaws. However the world is full of people with troubled upbringings but they don't all turn into megalomaniacs. There comes a point when you have to call it as you see it and when it comes to Assange, the film pulls its punches a little too much.
As The Social Network proved, a film this draws comparison with because of its subject matter, your anti-hero can still be portrayed as a complete bastard yet it is still possible for the audience to retain sympathy for him.
The portrayal of Assange however is helped by a stellar performance from the internet's favourite actor. In an extraordinary turn, Cumberbatch has captured all of Assange's affectations and ticks, as well as nailing that unique Assange drawl. He also skilfully brings great depth, soul and even an inner sadness underneath Assange's brash exterior. However Benedict Cumberbatch cannot cover all the flaws in this film, especially as he's not given any help from a very clunky script.
There is way too much exposition in this film. Too much of the first half-hour is spent telling (not showing) how Assange was raised in a cult, how he created WikiLeaks as he toured the world ("I shredded my power cord in Mombasa," "I was a bit busy in Nairobi") and how he has ensured the secrecy of all those who contact WikiLeaks by uploading tons of false data to mask the true data, making leaks untraceable. It's a lot of information to take in, not all of it necessary, and most of quite dull.
The script sadly doesn't improve much through the rest of the film. Yes, some dialogue is dire - "When you take on global corruption, you needed a few superpowers", "This is the biggest leak in history", "This is a diplomatic nightmare" - but more distracting are the sub-plots which rob the film of time away from its core strength - Cumberbatch's Assange - and lower the stakes of the whole story.
Too much time is taken with Daniel and his new girlfriend, their relationship jeopardised by Daniel's increasing obsession with WikiLeaks, and Assange in particular. It simply doesn't work in raising the stakes as frankly, a budding love affair doesn't exactly hold water against the fight for global justice.
Similarly the introduction of a sub-plot at the state department halfway through the film adds nothing. Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci play US government officials warning their seniors of the emergence of WikiLeaks and, eventually, dealing with the fallout.
This sub-plot is spurious, with little bearing on the main plot and with stakes far too low to be worthy of inclusion. The conclusion of this little story is that one of them loses their job. That's it. That's the worst that happens. Of all the fallout that the Afghan War Logs caused, that the filmmakers chose to get the audience to emotionally invest in one mid-ranking State Department official getting fired is bizarre.
Just think of what could have taken its place. Of course the obvious answer to that is Private Manning, who is barely mentioned in the film. By weaving Manning more into the story, especially as this was a secret Assange kept from Daniel, would have added so much to the film.
Manning could have been portrayed almost as a competing "love rival" to Daniel for Assange's attention, and because what happened to Manning was the direct result of Assange's egotistical and narrow-minded decision not to redact the war logs on his website, a decision which causes the final split between Assange and Daniel.
By introducing Manning the film-makers would have not only improved their own film but stolen a march on the surely inevitable Manning film that we can all see coming. But they didn't. As a result, this film could and should have been so much better. Very much a missed opportunity.