‘The Fifth Estate’ adds nothing to the Julian Assange debate

Benedict Cumberbatch straps on stringy white hair to play Julian Assange in "The Fifth Estate." Credit: Frank Connor
Benedict Cumberbatch straps on stringy white hair to play Julian Assange in “The Fifth Estate.”
Credit: Frank Connor

‘The Fifth Estate’
Director: Bill Condon
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl
Rating: R
1 Globe (out of 5)

Few have gone as up and down in the public consciousness as aggressively as WikiLeaks figurehead Julian Assange. When he first emerged on the international scene, he was a folk hero. Then he was scandalous. When absurdly prolific documentarian Alex Gibney got around to him (with “We Steal Secrets”), he was a questionable anti-hero, with his own bag of potentially damning secrets. With “The Fifth Estate,” the cash-in biopic on his notoriety, he’s fallen to full-on baddie — a thoughtless, egomaniacal weasel who lets the whistleblowers he enables twist in the wind, while also being kind of a jerk to nice ex-partner Daniel Domscheit-Berg.

Whatever the truth, Assange is unimpeachably in the right with “Estate,” a monotonous hunk of mere character assassination that doesn’t take the argument about his work to any productive places. Assange famously wrote his portrayer, Benedict Cumberbatch, chastising the production for choosing to adapt the two most stridently anti-Assange books on the market. One of those is by Domscheit-Berg. Played by Daniel Bruhl, he becomes the film’s more demure, conscious-stricken hero — a decent man seduced to the dark side by a dashing Aussie who promises to speak power to truth.

The script only goes up to WikiLeaks’ first major triumph, stopping right as Assange is about to succumb to scandals, both accusations of rape and the imprisonment of Bradley Manning. But Assange still never comes off well. Cumberbatch, rocking white, stringy locks and some alien-like dance moves, does a fine “SNL” impersonation. But he’s sinister, not ambiguous — a loathsome hypocrite bound to inspire hit pieces like this.

That may be true, but it makes for dull drama. And it’s disingenuous: As written by Josh Singer and Bill Condon sets out to be a dispassionate look at the pros and cons of leaking. But it never delves into the issues Assange’s actions bring up. It’s too busy portraying him as a monster-in-the-making. A better film would use the Assange case as opportunity to inquire into whether exposing the truth is a black-and-white issue, and locate the numerous gray areas. It’s only interested in reducing a complicated figure into an easy type.

If it were in some ways engaging, that might be fine, but the director is Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”), who thinks nothing of featuring a hilariously on-the-nose final scene where journo David Thewlis laboriously explains the title for those who didn’t get how clever it was. Except for placating Cumberbatch completists, it’s utterly useless.


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