'Fifth Estate' An 'Ambitious Film' About Julian Assange

The new movie The Fifth Estate wants to create a viable portrait of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. It dramatize the complex moral questions his work raises, and blend those themes with the personal dramas that are Hollywood's bread and butter.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, is a wanted man, holed up for over a year now at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

In that time, he's also been the subject of films. The documentary "We Steal Secrets" came out last spring. And this weekend, the drama "The Fifth Estate" opens.

Kenneth Turan has our review.

KENNETH TURAN: "The Fifth Estate" is an ambitious film. It wants to create a viable portrait of Julian Assange, dramatize the complex moral questions his work raises, and blend those themes with the personal dramas that are Hollywood's bread and butter.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FIFTH ESTATE")

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) A video was leaked today depicting what appears to be a U.S. military helicopter firing on unarmed reporters.

TURAN: "The Fifth Estate" opens in 2010 with WikiLeaks' greatest triumph, the release of what they called the largest trove of leaked documents of all time. As Assange - wonderfully played by Benedict Cumberbatch - knows full well, guaranteeing anonymity to his sources is the key to success.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FIFTH ESTATE")

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Julian Assange) Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. But if you give him a mask, he will tell you the truth.

TURAN: This moment should have been a shared triumph for Assange and his key collaborator - Daniel Domscheit-Berg, played by Daniel Bruel. But by this point, these men were barely speaking to each other. They split over the potential consequences of their biggest leak.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FIFTH ESTATE")

CUMBERBATCH: (As Julian Assange) We're winning an information war, which goes beyond any short-term alliance we have with the mainstream media. You want to throw it all away because you fear that some U.S. government informer might come to harm?

DANIEL BRUEL: (As Daniel Domscheit-Berg) These are human beings, Julian, and their lives are at stake.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Julian Assange) What about the lives of the soldiers and the civilians involved in these conflicts?

TURAN: Illustrating the way this relationship shifted from engaged collaborators to enraged antagonists, is the film's greatest strength.

Cumberbatch's Assange is arrogant, charismatic and committed; a lone wolf provocateur who never doubts he's on the side of the angels. Bruel does excellent work as well by bringing intelligence and energy to what could have been a second-banana role.

Less successful are the film's peripheral dramas, like the State Department types who worry about the leaks harming one of their informants. It would have been a better idea to keep the focus on the one-on-one drama between Assange and Domscheit-Berg. That's one truth that doesn't need to be leaked.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC FROM FILM)

MONTAGNE: The movie is "The Fifth Estate." Kenneth Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times.

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