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Publish and Be Slammed

The Fifth Estate (2013)

Frank Connor/Walt Disney Studios

Julian Assange's pre-emptive attempt to persuade Benedict Cumberbatch not to play the WikiLeaks founder in "The Fifth Estate" was probably a forlorn hope. As if Mr. Cumberbatch, now deep into that period when stars can be seen still visibly enjoying the work, was likely to refuse the opportunity of investigating a character as confounding and mannered as Mr. Assange. The actor's talent for mimicry has been put to good use before, but Bill Condon's film allows him to deploy it on a higher level altogether, and the results are a firework display. It's not his fault that the film comes not long after Alex Gibney's documentary "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks," which covered some of the same ground in more eccentric and inventive fashion, and did so with a harder focus on Mr. Assange than "The Fifth Estate" can pull off.

Mr. Assange could detect a conspiracy in a cashew nut, but Mr. Condon and writer Josh Singer can't pretend that their film is especially equitable. "The Fifth Estate" is built around Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), shown as an early convert to the WikiLeaks cause before eventually falling out with Mr. Assange over the release of unredacted material, and who wrote one of the books upon which the film is based. The relationship between the German and the Australian rises and falls without much unpredictability, although a slightly subversive reading lurks in plain sight; audiences are invited to make what they will of Mr. Domscheit-Berg's stifling family background and large back tattoo of the WikiLeaks logo.

There are hints of a sympathetic backstory for Mr. Assange, too; but once other characters start to crowd center stage, the dice become more clearly loaded. State Department officials, Icelandic politicians and Mr. Domscheit-Berg's sweet-natured wife all become entangled, played by the likes of Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Carice van Houten and Alicia Vikander; effortless charismatics all, just as Mr. Cumberbatch starts to engage full twitch. At the same time, the film's treatment of the Internet — already old-fashioned enough to include lines of code shone onto characters' faces — becomes too blunt to take seriously. An infinite secretarial pool all manned by Mr. Assange is a nifty metaphor for WikiLeaks being a one-man band (or perhaps just for megalomania), but putting a shadowy Bradley Manning silhouette in there is a trivialization too far.

Plus of course the story can't really conclude, although the filmmakers try and square this circle by having Mr. Cumberbatch, speaking as Mr. Assange, wind things up commenting on the deficiencies of this very film via past interviews. Mr. Condon also recreates the 2009 footage of Mr. Assange on a Rekyjavik dance floor for use as character background, but can't compete with the way Mr. Gibney deployed the real thing in his documentary, where it sprang into view like a booby trap triggered by trip wire. At this point in the real life of Mr. Assange, perhaps narrative fiction is just not the right tool for the job.


Opens on Oct. 11 in Britain and on Oct. 18 in the United States.

Directed by Bill Condon; written by Josh Singer, based on the books “Inside WikiLeaks” by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and “WikiLeaks” by David Leigh and Luke Harding; director of photography, Tobias Schliessler; edited by Virginia Katz; music by Carter Burwell; production design by Mark Tildesley; costumes by Shay Cunliffe; produced by Steve Golin and Michael Sugar; released by Entertainment One (Britain) and Touchstone Pictures (United States). Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes. This film is rated 15 by B.B.F.C. and R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Benedict Cumberbatch (Julian Assange), Daniel Brühl (Daniel Domscheit-Berg), Anthony Mackie (Sam Coulson), David Thewlis (Nick Davies), Alicia Vikander (Anke), Peter Capaldi (Alan Rusbridger), Carice Van Houten (Birgitta Jonsdottir), Dan Stevens (Ian Katz), Stanley Tucci (James Boswell) and Laura Linney (Sarah Shaw).


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