'Fifth Estate' Slams Julian Assange, Goes Wobbly on Morality of WikiLeaks

'Fifth Estate' Slams Julian Assange, Goes Wobbly on Morality of WikiLeaks

Now we know why Julian Assange has been attacking The Fifth Estate with such ferocity.

The film, opening nationwide today, recalls the dawn of WikiLeaks and its dysfunctional founder–Assange. The movie depicts Assange as a manipulative liar, one whose obsession with exposing secrets trumps, well, everything.

What’s far less clear in the film is Assange’s apparent anti-American streak and the full implications of releasing sensitive documents for the world to see.

Director Bill Condon’s film revisits recent whistleblower history, a story party told through the clever use of text messages and instant chat as visual markers. We learn that WikiLeaks began with very little clout, but Assange’s vow to protect anyone who coughs up information coaxes some people to start trusting the site.

It’s all about bringing down despots and embracing transparency, the film tells us, even if an exposed despot remains a very hard figure to depose. Those hard truths take a back seat to the back and forth between Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his genteel business partner, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl of Rush fame).

The film’s big moment comes when U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning hands over a treasure trove of U.S. documents, sparking an information tug of war between old-school outlets like The Guardian and Assange’s growing web empire.

Suddenly, all the warm and fuzzy talk of speaking truth to power in a digital age switches to how such information might compromise innocents. It’s a turn characterized by Laura Linney’s character, a State Dept. official who spends the film’s first half talking up Assange’s leaks but now must mop up the very large mess he’s made.

Such talk isn’t given the sobering close-up it deserves. The Fifth Estate saves its heaviest firepower for cutting Assange the personality down to size.