Much ado about Assange

There's a lot going on in The Fifth Estate: a whirlwind of classified documents from corporations and countries flying through the Ethernet. State Department officials running around pulling their hair out. Techies clacking frantically on laptops. Old-school investigative journalists bumping up against a new breed of information disseminators. Encrypted coding and instant messages whooshing across the screen. There is video of U.S. gunships mowing down unarmed reporters and Iraqi civilians. And the dreamlike vision of rows upon rows of steel desks planted on a vast surreal landscape of sand.

And at one point in this antsy, would-be cyber-thriller, Julian Assange - well, Benedict Cumberbatch, channeling the WikiLeaks founder with extraordinary precision - is captured doing an awkward disco boogie in a Reykjavik nightclub. This may be the most damning moment of his controversial career.

Adapted from two tell-alls about Assange and his revolutionary whistle-blowing dot-org (Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding), The Fifth Estate chronicles the white-haired Australian's ascent from teenage hacker to "mad prophet" espousing transparency and truth and holding court at international conferences.

With the release in 2010 of U.S. military gunsight footage taken years earlier in Baghdad, and of thousands of U.S. diplomatic communiques - simultaneously published in the Guardian, the New York Times, and Der Spiegel - WikiLeaks' profile exploded. Assange and his little website were very big news.

The problem with director Bill Condon's fictionalized account of all this is that, like WikiLeaks itself, there's way too much data to sift through. There's no focus here, no tension or suspense, and when Assange begins to turn from new-media messiah to megalomaniac - casting a wary, paranoid eye at his supporters and sidekicks - we don't care, because we're already suffering from information overload.

That said, if you've seen Alex Gibney's vastly more satisfying documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, you'll recognize how dead-on Cumberbatch's portrayal is. Daniel Brühl, playing the WikiLeaks ally-turned-disbeliever Domscheit-Berg, exudes earnestness and idealism, frustration and disillusionment, as required. His character tries to maintain a serious relationship (Alicia Vikander is the girlfriend) while running to Assange at every moment of crisis. And in this compressed version of events, the crises come fast and frequently.

On Sept. 18 at 23:00 GMT, WikiLeaks posted Josh Singer's Fifth Estate screenplay on its site - accompanied by point-by-point refutations and an aggressive condemnation of the film.

Assange, still holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to  avoid extradition to Sweden in connetion with sex assault charges, is clearly not a fan.

Of course, he has very personal reasons to dislike the film. But he's not alone.





The Fifth Estate

Directed by Bill Condon, R.J. Cutler. With Peter Capaldi, Alicia Vikander, Benedict Cumberbatch, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Daniel Brühl, Stanley Tucci, Dan Stevens, Carice van Houten. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for language and some violence).