Julian Assange: hero of media freedom or, one character’s verdict in The Fifth Estate, “manipulative asshole”? The jury is out. So, now, is the movie. The defendant will be able to watch his own trial by feature film (with Ecuadorian Spanish subtitles). Benedict Cumberbatch assumes the blond-white hair, pale eyebrows and Aussie drawl. For this actor one good turn keeps begetting another. He has already played Stephen Hawking and Vincent Van Gogh. Soon he will be decoder genius and Apple logo inspirer Alan Turing. He is excellent as the WikiLeaks founder – slippery, quicksilver, creepy, passively despotic – in a movie that without him would resemble The Social Network done over by Len Deighton.
We move glibly between capitals (Berlin, London, Washington) as the western world, two steps behind its own undoing, deals with the Julian calendar of destruction. Bill Condon’s direction and Josh Singer’s script do nothing unpredictable. Co-star Daniel Brühl is now reflex casting, after Rush, for any screen drama pitting an uptight Teuton against an Anglo-blond loose cannon; this makes Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s falling in and falling out more formulaic than it might be. In the Washington power corridors Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci are the black, the female and the flaky in-betweener (no glass-ceiling-challenging constituency left ignored) who strive to hold the line of national and international security. In London, freedom is The Guardian newspaper, represented by Peter “Alan Rusbridger” Capaldi and razor-allergic journo David Thewlis. In films like this, a scraggy beard is proof of anti-establishment integrity. When The Fifth Estate slows down enough for thought, almost every thought is a banality.
It’s watchable even so. How could it not be when – in a true story far more incredible than fiction – the fate of democracy hangs, or did hang, on the whim and will of a young Antipodean and his seemingly limitless powers of powers of geek conquest.