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'Fifth Estate': WikiLeaks yarn zeroes in on Assange

  • Benedict Cumberbatch as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in "The Fifth Estate."

    Frank Connor / Dreamworks Pictures

    Benedict Cumberbatch as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in "The Fifth Estate."

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By Robert Horton
Herald Movie Critic
  • Benedict Cumberbatch as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in "The Fifth Estate."

    Frank Connor / Dreamworks Pictures

    Benedict Cumberbatch as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in "The Fifth Estate."

Say what you want about Julian Assange, the guy is a talented blurb writer.
Since reading an early version of a movie script about his WikiLeaks adventures, Assange has fired off a series of withering one-liners about the project. One recent declaration: "The result is a geriatric snoozefest that only the U.S. government could love."
The adjective there is particularly cruel. Accuse the movie of distortions, or demonization, or of aligning itself with the CIA -- fine. But "geriatric" is the kiss of death in Hollywood. What's worse, Assange actually has a point.
The object of Assange's displeasure, "The Fifth Estate," does indeed carry the whiff of -- if not old age -- at least a pre-millennial's attempt to understand this newfangled Wiki-world.
Whenever director Bill Condon ("Gods and Monsters") wants to convey the Wild-West reach of what can happen with information on the Internet, he uses cornball visualizations: hundreds of wired desks manned by hundreds of Assanges in a warehouse with no end, or fireballs exploding across the same space.
The invention looks trite, but the effort is understandable. In some ways "The Fifth Estate" lines up as a movie about people sitting at laptops. Sometimes they type.
Josh Singer's script is culled from a couple of books about the WikiLeaks phenomenon, including a memoir by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Assange's right-hand man before they acrimoniously split.
We mostly get Daniel's perspective; he plays Nick Carraway to Assange's mystifying Gatsby, a committed observer who becomes less enchanted with his white-haired hero the more he gets to know him.
Daniel is played by Daniel Bruhl, the popular German star (and co-star of the current "Rush"); Assange is a juicy role for Benedict Cumberbatch, the erudite scarecrow equally at easy playing classical parts or Star Trek" villains. The actors are strong, if somewhat hemmed in by the real-life limitations of recent history.
For much of its first half, "The Fifth Estate" cranks up a well-paced chronicle of WikiLeaks and its rise to prominence.
Condon aims for the vibe of a '70s political thriller of the kind directed by Alan Pakula, like "All the President's Men." That's a fine goal, but the tricky part here is that the film's Assange is both tireless crusader and paranoid control freak -- Bob Woodward and Dick Nixon in the same person.
Issues of the future of journalism and public responsibility are dutifully stirred, but the movie keeps coming back to Assange as monster-martyr.
(The film barely alludes to allegations of sexual misconduct on Assange's part, a discreet but curious omission.)
That obsession with personality would seem to go against the original idea of WikiLeaks as an anonymous, free-to-all resource, and an indication of how far "The Fifth Estate" is stuck in the pre-cyber mode of information.
"The Fifth Estate" (2 stars)
A tale of Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the WikiLeaks adventure, told largely from the perspective of right-hand man Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl). Gets off to a good start, but Assange becomes the story, more than WikiLeaks, and the movie's got cornball ideas about how to dramatize the Internet.
Rated: R for language.
Showing: Alderwood 7, Cinebarre, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Meridian, Sundance, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall.
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