Forget about should: Can the WikiLeaks affair be made into a movie? Or is it too many-tentacled to be contained within a two-hour commercial entertainment like “The Fifth Estate,” no matter how seriously minded? A TV miniseries might make sense of it, perhaps; or a Web serial, posted on Reddit; or maybe a video game, with its eternally branching narrative threads, each fork leading to a government document we’re not meant to see but should be glad we did.
One thing’s certain: Real-life stories rarely come with a central figure so audience-ready as Julian Assange, and that’s part of the problem. With his shock of white hair and air of casual superiority, Assange could have stepped out of Edwardian fiction — a worthy adversary for Sherlock Holmes or one of H.G. Wells’s knottier leading men. Instead, the 21st century is stuck with him and he with us, and while Assange and his many followers would (and do) insist there’s more to WikiLeaks and the new political transparency than one man, pop culture in general and the movie industry in particular are drawn to charisma. We like our stories and our heroes (or anti-heroes — whatever), and if they don’t take acceptable shape, we cut them to fit.
Earlier this year, documentarian Alex Gibney did a decent job of lining up the many pieces of this tale in “We Steal Secrets: The WikiLeaks Story” — Assange’s beginnings as a misfit anarcho-hacker, the establishment of WikiLeaks as a drop box for anonymous whistleblowers, the revelations of Private Bradley Manning and the shock of the Apache helicopter video, the collaboration of three newsprint dinosaurs with Assange’s tatty outfit, the uproar, the backlash, the seamy allegations, and Assange’s retreat into the limbo of diplomatic asylum.
Gibney’s is a worthy work, and it makes one question the need for “The Fifth Estate” all the more. The director of the new movie is Bill Condon, a very gifted filmmaker (“Gods and Monsters,” “Dreamgirls”) who has lost his way of late (the last two “Twilights”). The new movie sees Assange — played with mercurial brio by Benedict Cumberbatch — as a digital Prince of Darkness, equally alluring and alarming as he sucks the blood of Old Media, and it locates our sympathies in the person of WikiLeaks team-member Daniel Domscheit-Berg, an earnest young hacker-idealist played by Daniel Brühl, so good in the recent “Rush.”
Josh Singer’s script is based on Domscheit-Berg’s book, “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website,” and “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy,” by David Leigh and Luke Harding, of Britain’s The Guardian. What the movie plays like is “Inside ‘The Social Network’.” The structural template of that 2010 hit has been ported over to the new story, with Assange as a Mark Zuckerberg-style egocentric genius blinded by ambition and Domscheit-Berg as the steady, stable Eduardo Severin figure. (I guess that would make the trio of publications that collaborated with WikiLeaks in publishing Manning’s trove — the Guardian, The New York Times, and Der Spiegel — this movie’s collective Winklevi.)
We need a romantic interest and a sex scene or two — don’t we? — so here’s the fetching Alicia Vikander as Daniel’s girlfriend, Anke, initially impressed as he uploads private Swiss banking documents to the Web from a supply closet at the law firm where they both work, then becoming the worried voice of Daniel’s conscience. “Why do you try so hard to be him?” she asks about Assange in one of the screenplay’s reductions of this story to Psych 101 character insights delivered in ham-handed dialogue.
“The Fifth Estate” moves along at a groovy clip, and it has been polished to a high Hollywood sheen. The performances are uniformly excellent; the opening-credits montage that packs into two minutes the entire history of information gathering is a marvel of concept and editing. And every so often Singer and Condon dump their two protagonists in an allegorical space meant to suggest both the boundless reaches of the Internet and the vastness of the secrets it can publish: newsroom desks fading into infinity while storm clouds whizz by in the far distance.
It’s a visually striking metaphor the movie doesn’t actually need. Much more interesting are the glimpses of how actual newsrooms and reporters function in a landscape tilting under their feet, scenes of WikiLeaks volunteers hiding server farms on actual farms — the sense that what brings information to us is not routers or Reuters but people.
But “The Fifth Estate” substitutes character types and clichés for people. We learn of Assange that he’s “like an octopus, he’s everywhere at once,” that his childhood in a cult made him what he is, that Berg’s bourgeois parents — scorned by Assange in a dinner-party scene — are the key to his rationality. It all makes for familiar melodrama that tries to “personalize” the story’s ideas but instead turns them into simplistic PowerPoint bullets that just lie there.
“Give a man a mask and he will tell the truth,” says the movie’s Assange, and all you have to do to question that notion is glance at the anonymous user comments under any online news story. When personal privacy collides with the public’s right to know, which takes precedence? What does “journalistic responsibility” even mean in a brave new world? Does editing in and of itself equal bias? Can information ever be separated from individual perspective, from how we “read” it? The movie alludes to these issues, then runs from them in fear. “The Fifth Estate” is itself the response of an entrenched and corporatized information system toward something it barely comprehends. It makes a media format that has sustained us for decades — the two-hour movie — feel like a 20th-century dinosaur.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.