courtesy photoThe excellent Benedict Cumberbatch

‘Fifth Estate’ stuck in neutral

WikiLeaks and its controversial creator, Julian Assange, get the standard thriller treatment in “The Fifth Estate.” It’s the wrong way to go for a real-life story that could dazzle as a character study or sizzle as a current look at the transparency vs. security debate.

Directed by Bill Condon and marking the feature screenwriting debut of “West Wing” scripter Josh Singer (adapting two books), the film is a headlines-inspired, secrecy-themed suspenser, echoing the recent “Closed Circuit.”

Its most interesting element involves two opposite-tempered techno-nerds who change the world together before one of them gets nasty (a la “The Social Network”).

The pacing is brisk, the camerawork hyperkinetic and the score pulsating, in tune with the tech-agey material and today’s box-office trends.

Australian hacker, programmer and revolutionary doer Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch), teaming with German colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl), creates WikiLeaks, an Internet site where whistle-blowers can leak covert data about government and corporate corruption.

Soon, the pair are posting bombshells about everything from Iceland’s economic meltdown to Afghanistan-stationed U.S. soldiers killing unarmed civilians.

WikiLeaks’ repute, along with Assange’s ego, continues to grow, and in 2010, the website, collaborating with the U.K. Guardian and the New York Times, releases thousands of confidential U.S. intelligence documents relating to diplomacy activities and the war in Afghanistan.

One observer pronounces it the most substantial leak since the Pentagon Papers. They become the talk of the media.

Already put off by Assange’s megalomania and paranoia, Berg clashes severely with Assange over the latter’s balking at the matter of redacting, from the documents, information that might endanger lives. Irreconcilable differences arise.

Assange, viewed by some as a freedom-of-information hero and by others as, to quote Sarah Palin, an enemy who should be hunted as urgently as “al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders,” becomes a hunted man.

As an international thriller, the film proves passable. Condon zips viewers from place to place and juggles numerous scenarios adeptly.

But it’s a superficial ride. Condon, whose credits include the character-rich “Gods and Monsters” and “Kinsey,” doesn’t deeply explore the vital personalities and moral dilemmas that underlie the surface flash.

Singer clutters things with more information than he can present efficiently. The film lacks the crisp, observant and flesh-and-blood impact of “The Social Network” and the dramatic grip of Alex Gibney’s recent documentary about WikiLeaks and its primary players.

Another problem: With questions about Assange still unanswered, the film tries so hard to be balanced (to the point of including scenes referencing a traumatic childhood) that, for all its kinetics, it feels stuck in neutral.

It’s a shame, because Cumberbatch works near-wonders with Assange. Persuading us that we’re watching the highly recognizable real thing, the actor transcends the screenplay to suggest a complex mix of brilliant aspiration, manipulative self-importance and crushing loneliness beneath his character’s sleazy charm.

Bruhl and secondary players ranging from Moritz Bleibtreu (as Berg’s hacker friend) to David Thewlis (as Guardian journalist Nick Davies) to Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney (as State Department long-timers) can’t achieve miracles with their more sketchily written characters, though Linney’s and Tucci’s diplomats account for a top moment when they deal with the grief Assange has caused them by hitting the bottle together.

REVIEW

The Fifth Estate

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl, David Thewlis, Moritz Bleibtreu

Written by Josh Singer

Directed by Bill Condon

Rated R

Running time 2 hours, 4 minutesartsBill CondonFifth EstateJulian AssangeMovies

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