Director: Bill Condon; Screenwriter Josh Singer; Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Peter Capaldi, Dan Stevens, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci; Running time: 128 mins; Certificate: 15
It's no surprise that the fatal flaw of The Fifth Estate should be a reach that exceeds its grasp. The origin story of whistleblowing organisation WikiLeaks is labyrinthine, the biography of its founder Julian Assange no less so, and the task of bringing their combined rise and fall to the screen brings with it a near-impossible number of angles to consider.
Earlier this year, Alex Gibney's doc We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks was faced with the same challenge, and made the execution look effortless, while Bill Condon's slick fictionalised stab spends more than two hours trying to cover all its bases and still ends up feeling surface-deep.
What really works is the doomed dynamic between Benedict Cumberbatch's abrasive Assange and his loyal spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg (a strong Daniel Brühl), which follows a trajectory that has already been widely compared to The Social Network's Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin. We pick up amid momentous action in 2010, on the eve of WikiLeaks' release of the war documents leaked by Chelsea Manning, before flashing back a few years to Assange and Domscheit-Berg's first idealism-fuelled meeting of minds in Berlin.
But The Fifth Estate doesn't have David Fincher's discipline, nor Aaron Sorkin's careful tenacity, and its central relationship never gets the sustained focus it needs thanks to Josh Singer's ADHD-afflicted screenplay. There's an intriguing sense at first that Assange is being unveiled to us as through Domscheit-Berg's eyes - the film is reverential in the early going when their bond is strong, and turns sour with whiplash speed once the cracks begin to show - but the sheer volume of secondary strands soon becomes disorienting.
Most problematic is Laura Linney's role as a fictitious State Department official who fears for the safety of a Libyan informant as a result of the war logs leak. Aside from being a politically dubious embodiment of the idea (held by many WikiLeaks critics) that the organisation has hypothetical blood on its hands, the storyline feels like an add-on that could and should have been excised without affecting the central story at all.
A stripped-down and focused character study of Assange will make a fascinating film one day in different hands, but it's frustrating how close this gets in isolated moments. Cumberbatch's shrewd portrayal captures his idiosyncrasies - the twitchy energy, the accent and halting speech, the air of guarded mania - while always being more than an imitation. Meanwhile Singer gets many of the details right, touching on Assange's disturbing upbringing and his crippling paranoia, at one stage giving him a repeated self-mythologising trope that brings to mind the unexpected comparison of Heath Ledger's Joker.
But for every great moment, there are two that fall flat. Every character, whether they're in the White House, the Guardian office or their own bedroom, speaks in the same urgent, sound bite-driven register. There is no inner life or unspoken conflict - themes are stated, not explored. "I've heard people say I'm on the autistic spectrum," Assange spontaneously declares at one stage, and watching Cumberbatch try to make this moment convincing brings home just how beneath his talents much of the scripting is.
Condon directs with the opposite of what Steven Spielberg once called "a quiet lens", bombarding his audience with visual flourishes - virtual maps, electronic front pages, a virtual office in the mould of a memory palace - which feel too showy for the subject matter.
There's a wealth of interesting ideas here about information flow in the digital age, crowdsourcing, freedom of information, the morality of whistleblowing, and a fascinating central portrayal of a troubling figure, and yet in 128 minutes the surface is barely scratched. An energetic, frequently fun but ultimately shallow dramatisation, The Fifth Estate takes heed of too many narrative masters and ends up serving none of them well.