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Originally published Thursday, October 17, 2013 at 3:14 PM

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‘The Fifth Estate’: Great acting gets tangled in WikiLeaks web

A review of ‘The Fifth Estate,’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 2.5 stars

‘The Fifth Estate,’ with Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Alicia Vikander, David Thewlis, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Mackie, Peter Capaldi, Carice van Houten, Dan Stevens. Directed by Bill Condon, from a screenplay by Josh Singer, based on the books “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website” by Daniel Domscheit-Berg and “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy” by David Leigh and Luke Harding. 124 minutes. Rated R for language and some violence. Several theaters.

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“Nobody is going to tell you the truth,” is one of the final lines of Bill Condon’s “The Fifth Estate”; it’s a fitting epigraph for a film ripped from the headlines, yet aware that truth is an elusive prize. The saga of WikiLeaks, the whistle-blower website founded by Julian Assange under the principle of “privacy for individuals, transparency for institutions,” is an unfinished story — it’s not clear yet how Assange, or WikiLeaks, will be weighed by history. The movie feels both too soon and too late; an often skillful assemblage of bits and pieces, telling a story we already know and, ultimately, letting it fade away without an ending. It seems, like its subject matter, overwhelmed by data.

But pare all that away and you have, at the core of “The Fifth Estate,” a wonderfully acted tale of a friendship turned sour. In its early scenes, Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch, white-haired and subtly lisping) meets young German network-security specialist Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) at a hackers’ conference. A “professional” association (in question marks, as it doesn’t appear that anybody got paid) is launched, with Domscheit-Berg excited about the possibilities WikiLeaks offers, and intrigued by his strange but brilliant new colleague. “Julian’s the mad prophet, but he needs boundaries,” Daniel’s girlfriend (Alicia Vikander) tells him. “He needs a line. You’re the line.”

The faceoffs between Cumberbatch’s feral-eyed Assange and Brühl’s rumpled everyhacker are electric, whether or not they adhere to what actually took place. (The movie is partially based on a book by Domscheit-Berg, who broke ways with Assange; Assange, in an interview recreated in the movie, calls the book “lies and distortions.” Yes, the movie is commented on within the movie; yet another layer of data.) They get a little tangled, though, in a web of multiple plot lines. This is a big, international story, and Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer do their best to convey its sweep — but a Washington, D.C., cast of characters (including Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Mackie) seems imported from another movie, and a crew at London’s Guardian newspaper (with David Thewlis and Dan Stevens) gets short shrift.

It’s refreshing to see a movie that does too much, rather than too little, and Condon’s visual imagination brings us some memorable images of WikiLeaks as a vast room of endless computer terminals, all manned by a devilishly smiling Assange. But by the end, despite Cumberbatch’s nuanced work, you remain unsure what to make of this pale anti-hero. The truth eludes, still.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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