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Review — Story of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assanges rise to notoriety powerfully acted

A poster advertising the film “The Fifth Estate” asks a simple but powerful question about its main character, Julian Assange, editor-in-chief and founder of WikiLeaks: Hero or terrorist?

Unfortunately, the film itself is not quite as balanced as that seemingly even-handed question might lead viewers to believe.

Which does make sense, considering the movie’s screenplay is based in part on a book written by one of “Estate’s” main characters, Daniel Berg (played by German actor Daniel Brühl), the former WikiLeaks spokesman who resigned from the whistleblower organization in 2010 after reportedly being suspended by Assange.by: PHOTO COURTESY OF DREAMWORKS PICTURES - Powerful -- Benedict Cumberbatch (left) and Daniel Bruhl portray real-life hacker activists Julian Assange and Daniel Berg in 'The Fifth Estate.'

Although the film is also based on another book, “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy” by British journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding, it is from Berg’s perspective that most of the movie is portrayed.

So it’s not that surprising that the real-life Assange’s (played in the film by the enormously talented Benedict Cumberbatch) criticism of “The Fifth Estate” began long before it opened in theaters, with him denouncing it as a “serious propaganda attack” on the organization he founded, and a “lie built upon a lie.”

To the filmmakers’ credit, they try to incorporate these themes of dueling truth narratives, contrasting principles and the blurred lines between fact and fiction, and between “real life” and what’s portrayed in the media, although most of these efforts are a bit too obvious, clumsy and chaotic to make much of an impact.

“Chaotic” is a good word to describe “Estate’s” direction. It wades deeply into the melodramatic minutiae of Assange and Berg’s working relationship — seemingly everything from their discussions of how to handle reporters and write press releases to the technical characteristics of the WikiLeaks infrastructure, even their efforts to increase server capacity — while the group’s acquisition of 251,287 classified United States diplomatic cables from Army Pvt. Bradley Manning is glossed over as though it were of little importance, hitting viewers almost out of the blue.

On screen, Assange and Berg’s relationship — already, at best, rocky and difficult to comprehend — takes a turn for the worst at that point. And because what follows is seen almost entirely through the eyes of Berg or government officials who take the fall for WikiLeaks’ actions, the film’s own opinion about whether Assange is a “hero or terrorist” is made painfully clear (hint: it’s not “hero”).

Of course, we may never know the truth about what transpired behind the closed doors of an organization like WikiLeaks, which deals in secrets shared by anonymous sources and digitally protected whistleblowers. But what’s hardly in dispute is that, in a very short period of time, the site made a significant and remarkable impact on the world — and the U.S. government and news media in particular.

And the film portrays this well, making use of a number of well-rendered visual interludes (not to mention a stunning opening sequence) and a tremendous supporting cast (including Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney).

However, even surrounded by such talent, it is Cumberbatch who shines in this one, anchoring the movie ship as it weathers shallow seas of dialogue and the odd rogue wave of a screenwriter’s misstep. Cumberbatch’s Assange is a larger-than-life figure, an antihero for the ages: Brilliant and charming, but also shadowy and dangerous — a tiger to be admired from afar but not to risk turning one’s back on.

“The Fifth Estate” is not entirely successful as merely an enjoyable movie-going experience; then again, that may not have been precisely its goal. Instead, it’s the uncommon but not unheard of film that assigns homework — encouraging its viewers (both directly and in more subtle ways) to dig more deeply into the story of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks in an effort to find truth.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, if anything can be learned from the real-life WikiLeaks saga, it’s that there is almost always more to the story behind the headlines and sound bites, it just takes more work — and the occasional whistleblower — to uncover.

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