The Fifth Estate feels like a weak-tea knockoff of The Social Network, the 2010 movie about online pioneers Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin. Director Bill Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer tell the story of the infamous whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks by zeroing in on the contentious relationship between two early contributors. One of them is Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the Australian-born one-time hacker who founded WikiLeaks so people could reveal secret but important information privately and securely. The other is Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl), a programmer who connects with Assange early on, and is attracted to his mission to take investigative journalism to the next step in the digital age.
Instead of exploring how technology often favors what is possible over careful consideration of what one should do, the movie tracks Berg's gradual disillusionment with Assange's obsessive control over WikiLeaks. Much of the action focuses on the buildup to the controversial release of classified U.S. government documents provided by Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning. Here The Fifth Estate comes closest to its potential. While we watch the WikiLeaks crew and their traditional-media partners clash over the journalistic rules that should apply to publishing this sensitive information, we also see government officials, most notably a State Department operative (Laura Linney), scrambling to address the potential fallout of damaged alliances and exposed informants.
We do watch the family of one such informant (Alexander Siddig) flee for their lives, but the filmmakers rarely seem interested in the real-world impact of Assange's insistence that all information be free. The Fifth Estate makes Assange's personal betrayal of Berg seem more important than the way WikiLeaks has shaken the foundation of geopolitics.
It's understandable that Condon and company want to focus the story on the relationship between the two main characters. But Assange and Berg are too bland and indistinct, even with their warring philosophies and love-life dramas. Something is awry if a white-maned megalomaniac doesn't become a memorable figure.