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Toronto Review: Benedict Cumberbatch Is A Fine Julian Assange, But Bill Condon's Festival Opener 'The Fifth Estate' Can't Do Justice to the WikiLeaks Story

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 6, 2013 at 12:34AM

Julian Assange is among the most captivating figures of the internet age partly because history has yet to reach a verdict about him. Living in London's Ecuadorian Embassy since last June to avoid extradition charges, Assange still runs the underground organization WikiLeaks' role. His persistence either testifies to his fierce principles or brash egotism, depending on where you fall on the issue. WikiLeaks' decision to publish previously anonymous sources among the millions of files on the U.S. war in Afghanistan, all of which were leaked by the recently sentenced ex-soldier Chelsea Manning, have positioned the understandings of Assange's operation somewhere between recklessness and unbridled activism.
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Fifth Estate

Even Domscheit-Berg, Assange's ostensible partner-in-crime, falls victim to his influence -- a situation thinly demonstrated with a perfunctory subplot that finds Assange getting in the way of Berg's relationship with his new girlfriend (Alicia Vikander). "You'll never be like him!" she says to his dismay. But only Assange can convince him. WikiLeaks' second in command finally thinks twice about his allegiances when Assange turns on Berg after he disagrees with Assange's decision to release the names of confidential government sources overseas. These events take place with the elementary quality of browsing Assange's own Wikipedia page. Neither emotionally involving or believable, like WikiLeaks, they're mainly concerned with the basic facts.

Even the occasional stabs at exploring Assange's curious backstory, including his childhood in an eccentric cult and an estranged teenage offspring, suffer from the bluntness of bullet points. The movie sometimes works fine on that level by providing a meaty debate on the boundaries of free speech, but the lackluster treatment of Assange's persona prevents the movie from sublimating its ideas into the main narrative.

The overstatement surrounding Assange's significance looks particularly crass when viewed in contrast to a compelling side plot involving frantic U.S. defense secretary Sarah Shaw (Laura Linney) who battles to protect one of her sources against the revelations of the Manning documents. Linney, speaking in a witty staccato that's the closest the movie comes to echoing Sorkin-level vitality, brings a clarity to the unprecedented sense of unease generated by Assange's work. By contrast, other scenes strain from contrived circumstances that reflect the very type of artificiality WikiLeaks was designed to dismantle.

Condon, a proficient filmmaker whose screenplays for "Gods and Monsters" as well as "Kinsey" demonstrated a capacity for smart biographical storytelling, seems incapable of grappling with Assange's slippery nature. By the end, Assange has virtually hacked the project: When Cumberbatch speaks out in character against the production of the movie, "The Fifth Estate" winds up its own worst critic.

Criticwire grade: C

HOW WILL IT PLAY? DreamWorks releases "The Fifth Estate" in October. Interest in Cumberbatch's performance and the Assange story may help the movie receive decent exposure in its initial release, but it's not an awards contender or enough of a milestone achievement to gain much of a sustained reception.

This article is related to: Reviews, Festivals, The Fifth Estate, Wikileaks, Julian Assange, Benedict Cumberbatch, Bill Condon, Toronto International Film Festival, DreamWorks SKG







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