Second, a little history. Before this story of the fifth estate begins, the film sets a context for Wikileaks. Scrolling briskly by are cuneiform writing dug into soft stone walls, followed by Linotype slugs, and typewriting and Morse code and Pathé newsreels, newspapers, Walter Cronkite on TV, and the Internet. Cyberspace is for news now.
"The Fifth Estate" attempts to tell the story of Assange, an Australian hacker intent on exposing crime and corruption from the bunker of a safe website, an anonymous place for whistle-blowers. The film flashes all the way back to 2007 at a conference of cybergeeks. Assange blusters in, all ego and white hair -- dyed, it turns out -- and is rescued by a German hacker, Daniel Berg (Schmitt is his alias, taken from his dog). For three years, Berg and Assange ride the range, busting crime through tech wizardry -- and a lie. That lie is Assange's: he presents Wikileaks as a consortium of hackers, but they all turn out to be Assange himself.
Not too long after Berg's revelation, the film stutters, becoming, via Berg's book on which Josh Stringer's screenplay is based, an investigation into Assange's ego. "Courage," exhorts Assange, "is contagious." Berg finds his moral center, which includes concern about lives destroyed when secrets are revealed. He is helped here by his girlfriend's complaint that Wikileaks' report on Kenyan death squads is spoiling their sex life. The film includes an epilogue with Assange calling "The Fifth Estate" the "anti-Wikileaks movie."
Maybe it's too soon to strive for this kind of biopic, too close to Assange's current situation in relation to the Chelsea (born Bradley) Manning leaks of U.S. military matter. But director Bill Condon, known for both "Dreamgirls" and "Kinsey," makes a sturdy effort. His cameras come in pore-close to faces; he flashes back to Assange's childhood; he shows messages typed, clicky-clicky, on screen.
Benedict Cumberbatch, praised for his work as Sherlock Holmes, is a worthy Assange, and Daniel Brühl from "Inglorious Basterds" concentrates as Berg. David Thewlis provides good work as the editor of the Guardian; and Laura Linney, Andrew Mackey, and Stanley Tucci are excellent as American aides.
Still, "The Fifth Estate" is, unfortunately, closer what Assange has called it: "a snoozefest." Yes, maybe it's too soon.