He stands out no matter where he is. Maybe it’s the shock of white hair, the smooth yet abrasive Australian accent or the lofty demeanor that simultaneously repels and beguiles his fellow computer geeks. Still, who could have predicted that real-life hacker Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) would one day be a major thorn in the side of the political establishment via his whistle-blowing website, WikiLeaks? Certainly not Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), a starry-eyed technology activist who falls under the spell of this guru-in-the-making after their first encounter at the 2007 Chaos Computer Club conference and follows him to a very bitter end.
The duo’s friendship and eventual falling-out, which Domscheit-Berg recounted in the 2011 book Inside WikiLeaks, makes up the dramatic arc of Bill Condon’s stylistically aggressive, empty-headed political thriller. It certainly moves at a fast clip, breathlessly chronicling Assange’s rise from fringe programmer to cyberspace sage and political pariah. Yet the tricked-out imagery (superimposed iMessage chats, infinite computer cubicles manned by infinite Assanges) meant to portray the ephemeral rush of the virtual world are thuddingly literal, while the suspense Condon tries to wring out of epochal events like the Bradley Manning–sourced “Collateral Murder” video would barely pass muster on a Nat Geo history special.
Cumberbatch is clearly having fun as Assange (his magic-hands techno dance scene is almost worth the price of admission), though he never gets far beyond Madame Tussauds–level impersonation. Brühl, meanwhile, is saddled with the unenviable task of being this hollow movie’s slow-dawning voice of reason: His climactic conversation with newspaper editor David Thewlis (never worse) is one of the most embarrassingly didactic Way We Live Now™ summations ever filmed. It doesn’t take a systems engineer to see that a lot more overhaul was required before production.
Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich