It’s clear that director Bill Condon at least tried to make The Fifth Estate interesting. Tight shots of fingers rapidly striking keyboards, fantasy sequences meant to represent the mysteries of how the website WikiLeaks functions, quick moments of the site’s founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch, upstaged by his white hair) espousing philosophies like: “Man is least himself when he talks with his own person. But if you give him a mask, he will tell you the truth.” It’s all meant to create a sensation of hackers working against time and The Man. Locations shift, often filled with shaggy, off-beat characters, like mohawked weirdos who squat in an abandoned building and throw parties.
But maybe all those years with that exposition-heavy Twilight franchise has corrupted the director’s skills. No matter how quickly he edits or pans the camera, it never hides the fact that all these characters do is tell each other what they are doing. The Fifth Estate must hold the record for most use of continuous expository dialogue to serve to explain what is happening to the audience rather than show it. The characters spend more time explaining their actions, behaviors and beliefs than doing much of anything. The film just builds up to a dull, monotonous bore.
Nothing in the film will surprise anyone who knows much of anything about WikiLeaks. But, man, does Condon try to squeeze every detail in. The director even finds a moment to not only allude to a viral video of Assange awkwardly dancing but puts us there. As if Cumberbatch’s noble recreation of the goofy dancing is not enough, again the usual dialogue to explain what is happening amounts. “He’s like an octopus,” says one of Assange’s followers to Assange’s once most trusted man, Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl, giving a sincere performance of the man who wrote the book which the movie is based). They then join in, trying to mimic him.
It all feels so connect-the-dots straight, it’s hard to care about these characters. When the inevitable falling out occurs between Assange and Berg, the stakes grow higher, as moral concerns of leaking information are explained to the viewer. The director then brings in a White House representative (Laura Linney) and another U.S. official (Stanley Tucci) offering the voices of the fretting government over spilled secrets and frank cables. The switching of perspectives only serves to further dilute the film, and though Linney and Tucci give nice performances, there’s nowhere to go with this movie, which cannot find anything more creative to do but try to cram in as much information as possible into its bloated two-hour-plus runtime.
It’s not like such an abstract battlefield as cyberspace and information is easy to represent. But, had the film focused more intimately on the rather sociopathic character of Assange instead of maintaining his enigmatic quality, the film could have felt more compelling, even if incongruently balanced. It doesn’t matter how fast and frantic you wiggle your fingers over a keyboard or how loud you make the keys clack, it all gets so tired fast, especially after the twentieth close up of the same sort of image.