Mostly, we see Assange, played brilliantly by the chameleonic Benedict Cumberbatch, through the eyes of WikiLeaks' first employee, Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl). Berg meets Assange at one of an endless number of hacker conventions, all of them featuring copious quantities of glowsticks and techno music. Berg is at first charmed by Assange's desire to use technology such as a submissions site that allows whistleblowers anonymity to uncover government and corporate secrets.
The film chronicles WikiLeaks' early splashes, culminating in the early scoop called "Collateral Murder": a leaked video of a 2007 Baghdad airstrike in which U.S. Army Apache helicopters gunned down Iraqi civilians and two Reuters journalists.
It's that leak that presaged WikiLeaks' biggest stories in 2010: the Afghan War Diary, with some 76,000 unreleased documents detailing the handling of combat in Afghanistan; a follow-up release of documents from the Iraq War; and a dump of more than 250,000 diplomatic cables that exposed how U.S. State Department officials really talk about world leaders. (All of these were ultimately traced back to a lowly soldier, Chelsea Manning, whose story is handled better in Alex Gibney's documentary "We Steal Secrets.")
These releases set off a firestorm in official Washington, which Condon depicts with urgent meetings between State Department staffers (Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney) and a White House official (Anthony Mackie). The three seem to represent a hitherto unknown government body, the Plot Exposition Agency.
Among Condon's distracting bag of tricks, it's in the section about the diplomatic cables that the movie delivers its biggest howler: a highly dramatic, and factually suspect, rushing of a Libyan informant (Alexander Siddig) to the border before Muammar al-Gaddafi catches him.
Soon, the movie devolves into a recurring shouting match between Assange and everybody else. He fights Berg, Berg's girlfriend (Alicia Vikander) and his erstwhile publishing partners at the British paper The Guardian (led by David Thewlis and Peter Capaldi) over the line between revealing secrets and protecting the lives of those exposed.
Singer's script (adapted from books by Berg and by two Guardian reporters) vacillates between glamorizing and demonizing Assange, which leaves Cumberbatch the unenviable task of trying to understand him. The performance is smooth and assured, capturing Assange's evangelistic zeal and personal arrogance. It's up to Brühl who steals this movie much as he did in "Rush" (this time, from a Brit playing a blond Australian, instead of an Aussie playing a blond Brit) to be the grown-up, showing Berg as the conscience of the "hacktivist" movement.
Ultimately, "The Fifth Estate" does what WikiLeaks has done: It raises more questions than it answers, leaving viewers to cut through the moral fog of modern do-it-yourself journalism.
'The Fifth Estate'
The rise of WikiLeaks, and the fame of the enigmatic Julian Assange, is depicted in a flashy but ambiguous drama.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Oct. 18.
Rating • R for language and some violence.
Running time • 128 minutes.