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‘The Fifth Estate’: Benedict Cumberbatch terrific as Julian Assange

‘THE FIFTH ESTATE’ ★★★

Julian Assange | Benedict Cumberbatch

Daniel Domscheit-Berg | Daniel Bruhl

Sam Coulson | Anthony Mackie

Sarah Shaw | Laura Linney

DreamWorks Pictures and Reliance Entertainment present a film directed by Bill Condon and written by Josh Singer. Running time: 124 minutes. Rated R (for language and some violence). Opens Oct. 18 at local theaters.

Updated: November 19, 2013 6:16AM



It’s complicated. “The Fifth Estate” plays like a much higher-stakes version of “The Social Network,” from the flashback time line to the arguments about who started what to the fractured friendship between two brilliant computer minds.

There’s also a lot of Hollywood hokum as well as some largely unnecessary armchair psychology that attempts to delve into the mind and motivation of Julian Assange, the mercurial WikiLeaks founder who at various times in this film is called “a mad prophet,” a “terrorist,” a true revolutionary hero, the inventor of a new kind of journalism and a “manipulative a------.”

That’s the problem with the truth. There’s almost always more than one.

Benedict Cumberbatch, so bloody good as the villain in the most recent “Star Trek” movie, shines as the white-haired, self-proclaimed knight of unfettered truth, who believes in two things: publishing leaked documents and videos with no editing and no context, and protecting the sources of those leaks at all costs through an infinite maze of encrypted codes.

Barreling through hipster hacker parties in trendy Euro locations, trekking through Third World countries and making contacts with fellow truth-seekers, Assange never doubts his mission and has little patience for anyone who dares consider having a personal life when so much is at stake. The sometimes feverish editing pace captures that mad rush of adrenaline felt by those who post breaking news online, and those who gobble up every nugget and share with their own network of Friends and Followers.

Daniel Bruhl (terrific as Niki Lauda in Ron Howard’s “Rush”) is Assange’s first chief disciple, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who is so enamored with Assange that nearly every conversation with his girlfriend includes the phrase, “Julian says …”

Julian and Daniel set out to tear down the Information Wall with WikiLeaks posting evidence of tax dodges at a Swiss bank and corruption in the Kenyan government, and videos purporting to show American military gunning down unarmed civilians in Afghanistan.

Perhaps overly concerned about a movie in which most of the conflicts are waged via keyboard, veteran director Bill Condon layers on the stylistic flourishes. We see Julian and Daniel in a dreamlike version of an endless newsroom, where the desks and computers stretch beyond the horizon. To indicate Daniel’s mounting feelings of being overwhelmed, Condon’s camera circles him at rapid speed, as if Daniel’s on a merry-go-round and he can’t get off. It’s a bit much.

We also get subplots, too many subplots. Mainstream journalists at established publications such as The Guardian try to partner with Assange while wrestling with their own ethics. Meanwhile, Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci are world-weary, fast-quipping, mid-level State Department officials trying to cope with the real-world consequences when Pvt. Bradley Manning provides WikiLeaks with a mountain of classified documents that could reveal the identities of dozens if not hundreds of U.S. agents and informants.

You don’t get much better than Tucci and Linney, but the tone of their scenes and the style of dialogue seem like they’re from a whole different, and less interesting, movie than the primary story.

Cumberbatch plays Assange as someone who’s so disconnected from normal human politeness that he seems borderline autistic (as he alludes to), or perhaps coping with Asperger’s. Julian claims his mission is all about revealing the truth, but his massive ego is wounded anytime anyone but Julian is getting the credit for WikiLeaks. We can see how this guy could have an almost cultlike effect on his followers, and we can see how he could redefine the meaning of chillingly creepy and boorishly irresponsible.

At times “The Fifth Estate” seems as cutting-edge as the 21st century techno-info revolution it portrays. On other occasions, e.g., the brooding Assange looking off into the distance while the rain pours down, or Julian and Daniel fighting in a chat room while pounding away furiously on their laptop computers, it’s almost like an expensive Funny or Die bit. The Julian-Daniel bromance story line is overplayed and seems ridiculous in the face of the world-shattering consequences of what WikiLeaks wrought.

This is neither hagiography nor character assassination. “The Fifth Estate” raises fascinating, complex questions about the evolving nature of journalism, and whether publishing everything and anything with not a single stroke of editing is a victory for freedom — or a Big Brother fantasy that could get people killed.

Email: rroeper@suntimes.com

Twitter: @richardroeper



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