Julian Assange

In fall 2010, as many of the events that comprise “The Fifth Estate” were occurring, Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher were receiving high praise for “The Social Network,” their adaptation of a similar story. It’s hard not to see that film’s legacy all over director Bill Condon’s attempt to chronicle Julian Assange’s propulsive journey to the spotlight of the information age, but his thematically-muddled approach and only sporadically-interesting narrative render “The Fifth Estate” a frustrating missed opportunity.

The film takes a familiar approach, focusing on the partnership between Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl) and Assange
(Benedict Cumberbatch). Domscheit-Berg is initially drawn to Assange for his wild aspirations of exposing the truth while protecting his sources. But as WikiLeaks stumbles upon its biggest story yet, tensions between the two come to a head.

In Condon’s struggle to make characters sitting at computers visually interesting, he infuses “The Fifth Estate” with a grand visual metaphor. Every time Condon cuts back to this visual representation of a digital organization, it becomes less effective. By the end of the film, he has taken it to a laughably literal level. Unfortunately, this is the only place where Condon shows any flair, and “The Fifth Estate” is a dry and flavorless presentation. From its overwrought opening sequence showing the history of information to the barrage of neon-underlined speeches the film ends with, “The Fifth Estate” is dramatically limp for most of its runtime.

“The Fifth Estate” starts to perk up a bit once it introduces a compelling moral conundrum over halfway through, but only becomes truly interesting in the moments where Condon is portraying the paranoia that threatens to swallow Assange whole. The characters embark on scholarly speeches about why Assange has changed the way information is shared, but the fullest consequences cannot be grasped yet, resulting in a story that feels unfinished.

The biggest draw for “The Fifth Estate” is Cumberbatch’s performance as Assange. Assange is written as a twitchy Zuckerberg-lite, but Cumberbatch plays him as a vacuum of charisma, utterly uncomfortable in his own skin but thrilled at the self-mythologizing that his media empire allows him. Cumberbatch’s performance is hard to latch on to, and the script’s loose understanding of Assange is reinforced in a clumsy final scene.

Domscheit-Berg’s arc is not incredibly compelling, but at least he has one. While the script is content to lead him between story beats blandly, Bruhl does his best to make a plain character arc interesting. 

“The Fifth Estate” is not a terrible film. It is simply a misguided work, a film trying to capture the zeitgeist in the same way that “The Social Network” did in 2010. Unfortunately, Condon brings so little flair to his telling of the dryly-written script that it’s far easier to dismiss the film entirely than attempt to engage with its laborious 128-minute runtime.

SAN ANTONIO — Private intelligence firm Stratfor was paid by Coca-Cola to gauge the threat of Olympic protesters, provided Dow Chemical information on environmental activists, and sells what clients and subscribers consider the best geopolitical analysis that money can buy.

Now the Texas-based think tank is the latest target of WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange, who says his anti-secrecy group has more than 5 million of Stratfor’s emails and is promising to release damaging material in the coming weeks.

The first, small batch published Monday contained little that was particularly scintillating — but revealed clients that Stratfor has long safeguarded and refused to disclose. They range from local universities to megacorporations like Coca-Cola, which apparently worried about animal-rights supporters crashing and disrupting the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.

“To what extent will US-based PETA supporters travel to Canada to support activism?” a Coca-Cola manager asked a Stratfor analyst in a 2009 email.

An initial examination of the emails turned up a mix of the innocuous and the embarrassing. But Assange has accused Stratfor of serious deeds, such as funneling money to informants through offshore tax havens and making investments based on its secret intelligence.

“What we have discovered is a company that is a private intelligence Enron,” Assange told London’s Frontline Club, referring to the Texas energy giant whose spectacular bankruptcy turned it into a byword for corporate malfeasance.

Stratfor denied there was anything improper in the way it dealt with its contacts.

“Stratfor has worked to build good sources in many countries around the world, as any publisher of global geopolitical analysis would do,” the company said in a statement. “We have done so in a straightforward manner and we are committed to meeting the highest standards of professional conduct.”

Headquartered on the fourth floor of a bank building in downtown Austin, Stratfor might be one of the smallest targets on which WikiLeaks has set its sights. Founded in 1996, the company was reported to have the equivalent of around 40 full-time employees in Austin in 2008 and regularly plucks interns from the nearby University of Texas campus.

According to one internal Stratfor document released by WikiLeaks, the company boasted having 292,000 paid subscribers but also acknowledged that the actual number of people reading its products is far fewer. Stratfor uses analysts to scour the Internet for open-source information, to determine where the world’s next crisis might strike.

But the company also pays for information. One email released by WikiLeaks described a $6,000-a-month payment made to a Middle Eastern source. In December, Stratfor founder George Friedman gave advice on handling sources to one of his analysts gathering information on the health of Venezuela President Hugo Chavez.

“If this is a source you suspect may have value, you have to take control [of] him. Control means financial, sexual or psychological control to the point where he would reveal his sourcing and be tasked,” the email read. “This is difficult to do when you are known to be affiliated with an intelligence organization.”

Printed on Thursday March 1, 2012 as: WikiLeaks to release information about fraudulent company