The Fifth Estate traces the early days of WikiLeaks – the international, online, non-profit organisation that publishes secret information, news leaks, and classified media from anonymous sources. Founded by Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) with the aid of Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), the website became known for whistle-blowers exposing the darkest secrets of the government and corporations. As Wikileaks gained international notoriety, Daniel starts to grow increasingly disillusioned with Julian's questionable methods and principles.

Just the news and nothing else.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Coming only a few months after Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Bill Condon’s Wikileaks thriller The Fifth Estate feels both too soon and too late. Though Gibney’s same subtitle fits—neither film claims to be the story of litigious WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange—Condon’s version, being a feature, has less need of subtitles than a documentary. Its assets are more implied—in the casting, say, of Benedict Cumberbatch as the Aussie hack-tivist, and more broadly in the license of fiction not just to inform but engage, entertain, give us not just the facts but a well-told story.

so desperate to impress its stakes upon audiences that little else—good
writing, strong direction, intuitive storytelling—seems to matter

The Fifth Estate opened this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and on the surface it’s a decent choice: timely, flashy, and featuring, as I mentioned, man of the hour Cumberbatch. It’s also not very good. In fact it’s pretty bad, a torn-from-the-headlines story so desperate to impress its stakes upon audiences that little else—good writing, strong direction, intuitive storytelling—seems to matter.

An opening montage moves from the birth of the printing press to the death of Newsweek, an ostensible casualty of the Internet age. Then, the breathless opening line, delivered from a newsroom floor: 'Der Spiegel is begging for more time!" Now, it’s possible there’s a scenario in which Der Spiegel begging for more time might prove unbearably exciting. Here, like much of The Fifth Estate, its effect is that of mere excitability. From this 2010 snapshot of editorial chaos, Condon draws us back to 2007, when WikiLeaks was more of a glimmer in an unwashed, prematurely white-haired man’s eye. Cumberbatch’s Assange, peeking from behind greasy strands of a ludicrous wig, meets Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl), a bored computer programmer depicted here as an unthreatening European type of indeterminate accent, at some kind of Web conference. Berg, aware of the lanky man’s 'badass" reputation, assists Assange’s dinky presentation to a handful of conference-goers, and a bond is struck.

In their first joint triumph, Berg and Assange take down a Swiss bank by publishing leaked, incriminating documents. Berg is hooked, and Assange has a partner he feels he can trust. Their mandate is 'taking on global corruption," which as a job description is great for the ego but a little too broad to stand up to scrutiny. Soon the WikiLeaks portal, designed to protect sources leaking sensitive information, becomes itself a source, one reluctant to recognise journalistic ethics and protocols. 'Editing is bias," Assange says, an idea that turns investigative diligence and editorial discretion into a form of censorship. The organisation is tested by the Bradley Manning leaks, unprecedented in proportion, of a video of American forces killing unarmed civilians, including two Reuters reporters, as well as tens of thousands of classified war documents and diplomatic cables.

Writer Josh Singer adapted The Fifth Estate from Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s memoir, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website and a second WikiLeaks exposé, WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy, written by Guardian reporters David Leigh and Luke Harding. I haven’t read those books, but their titles suggest the style of pop-up history marring the script. Every character (including Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, and Anthony Mackie playing Washington brass) communicates in a language I’ll call trailer-speak—an overcooked tongue, filled with exposition and heady declamation, perfectly suited for a movie’s 90-second preview. 'Welcome to the revolution"; 'This is a diplomatic nightmare"; 'He’s bigger than the Times, he can do whatever he wants"; 'This is citizen journalism, it’s a new nervous system." The Fifth Estate strains to educate viewers, impress upon them the precise brand and sharpness of its cutting edge, when in fact it feels hopelessly out of touch.

Condon’s roiling, literal-minded style highlights the persistent difficulty of dramatising online communication. Depicting cyberspace as dark world of replicating desks and typewriters adds nothing to a concept still begging for translation. Likewise a matrix of awkward close-ups and showy handheld camerawork fail to infuse the inert script with badly needed energy. Cumberbatch was clearly game for the challenge of portraying Assange, and captures the accent, the crabbed posture, his strange, hovering physical presence that seems itself to waver on and offline. Though the film attempts here and there to illuminate the psychology underlying Assange’s righteous yet sloppy moral relativism, his character remains as broadly, stubbornly oblique as The Fifth Estate’s tangle of modern themes.