The Fifth Estate opens Friday

Earlier this week, Julian Assange, the founder of the news organization WikiLeaks, released an email he had sent to Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor portraying Assange in the new bio-drama The Fifth Estate. In the letter, Assange insinuates that Cumberbatch was being used as a tool to undermine the website’s work helping whistleblowers shine a light on corruption and crime. At the time, Assange had only read the script. Judging from the film itself, one has to wonder if Assange had anything to worry about after all.

The Fifth Estate purports to be the story of the creation of WikiLeaks, as adapted from two books that Assange has called “discredited,” one of which was written by a volunteer removed by Assange in 2009. That volunteer, Daniel Berg (played here by Rush star Daniel Brühl), meets Assange in 2007 at an Internet conference. It doesn’t take long for the young man to be swept away by the charismatic leader’s thoughts on how those with the talent to hack television remotes as a prank should be using their tech knowledge to make the world a better place. Berg quits his job shortly thereafter to devote more time to WikiLeaks, and he eventually becomes witness to the largest leak of military documents in United States history.

The Fifth Estate plays as a tale of new media told by a technophobe. Director Bill Condon is a celebrated filmmaker, with credits including Dreamgirls, Kinsey and Gods and Monsters, but the similar eras of those films suggest Condon may be more comfortable with mid-20th-century subjects. The Fifth Estate treats computer programmers as invincible foes for the adults who have to make the hard decisions, and online news sites as unethical outlets that lack the editorial rules “real” journalists have. Condon wanted to make this year’s equivalent of The Social Network; instead, we get an updated version of Hackers.

The only thing that saves this movie is the actors’ ability to rise above the screenplay. Cumberbatch and Brühl are adequate in their starring roles, but Laura Linney shines as a state department official forced to deal with the danger that the leaked government documents have put hundreds of U.S. operatives overseas. Peter Capaldi and David Thewlis’ portrayals of journalists at The Guardian tease us with glimpses of the better movie that could have been made if more talented people were working behind the camera.

This article appeared in print with the headline “White guys.”