The Fifth Estate: A Hollywood Cartoon of Julian Assange

In 'Dreamgirls' director Bill Condon's bio-pic, the WikiLeaks saga becomes a lopsided bromance

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DreamWorks Pictures

From an early review of The Fifth Estate, a biopic about Julian Assange and his whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks:

“I do not believe that this film is a good film … DreamWorks has based its entire production on the two most discredited books on the market … [The film] does not seek to simplify, clarify or distill the truth, but rather it seeks to bury it … It is distorted truth about living people doing battle with titanic opponents. It is a work of political opportunism, influence, revenge and, above all, cowardice … It seeks … to cut principle with hypocrisy … to cut the truth with lies … to create a work, not of fiction, but of debased truth.”

The severe critic is Assange himself, in a letter penned Jan. 15 to Benedict Cumberbatch, the English actor who was to play Assange in The Fifth Estate and had requested to visit him in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Assange’s refuge since June 2012. Assange, presumably after reading a version of Josh Singer’s script (you needn’t ask how he got a copy), signaled his admiration for Cumberbatch and his “inexpressible regret” at declining a meeting before launching his salvo against the film. The letter, published recently in Variety, is worth reading in full for its insight into the mind of the movie’s subject.

(READ: Julian Assange on being played by Benedict Cumberbatch)

Cumberbatch says the letter gave him “real cause for concern” but resolved to complete the project because it resonated with his belief in civil liberties. He says he wants to prove that Assange is not just “a weird, white-haired Australian dude wanted in Sweden, hiding in an embassy behind Harrods. But a true force to be reckoned with, [who] achieved the realization of the great ideal.”

(READ: Benedict Cumberbatch on playing Julian Assange)

This exchange, as well as the very existence of the movie, shows how the information unearthed by WikiLeaks has made less impact on the popular consciousness — and gets less press attention — than the personality of the site’s founder. Consider that, since Assange’s flight to the Ecuadorian embassy 16 months ago, WikiLeaks has published the Syria files — more than 2 million e-mails and papers from Assad’s government — and a hundred or so classified files from the U.S. Defense Department revealing its policy on detainees at Guantánamo and elsewhere.

Early this year WikiLeaks released CIA and State Department documents from the 1970s, including secret cables from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Last month it posted a new installment of its Spy Files 3 project, detailing the internal workings of European companies specializing in surveillance technology. That’s corporate spying to you, or maybe on you.

All very noteworthy, and newsworthy. But WikiLeaks hasn’t received the coverage that a few years ago secured its reputation as the top source for exposés of government and industrial corruption. The Iraq and Syria War Logs, which the site obtained from U.S. Army analyst Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, made news around the world, thanks in part to the editorial validation of the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel.

(READ: James Poniewozik on the Bradley and Chelsea Manning story)

That was in 2010, so very long ago that it makes Assange and the site he founded seem almost nostalgia items. The same with The Fifth Estate, a high-energy, empty-calorie portrait of the Wonder from Down Under. Directed by Bill Condon, who made his name in biopics (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey) before going old Broadway with Dreamgirls and young adult with the last two Twilight movies, The Fifth Estate crams a spanning-the-globe crash course in international politics into the crevices of a lopsided bromance. True to expectations, it concentrates less on the meat of the leaks than on Assange’s lofty personality. After all, the young Ralph Nader revealed plenty of juicy facts about corporate chicanery, and Hollywood made no movie about him.

(READ: TIME’s 1966 story on Ralph Nader and General Motors)

As Aaron Sorkin’s script for The Social Network traced the spiral of admiration into disillusionment in the relationship of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his colleague Eduardo Saverin, so The Fifth Estate fictionalizes, or possibly falsifies, the collaboration of Assange and fellow hacker-activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl). Domscheit-Berg’s memoir of Assange and WikiLeaks is one of the sources for the screenplay by Singer, who had written for Sorkin’s TV series The West Wing. The other is WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, by David Leigh and Luke Harding of the Guardian. In Assange’s us-vs.-them worldview, both books would be clearly on the them side.

(READ: TIME’s review of The Social Network)

They meet in Berlin in 2007 and quickly become, in the words of the film Assange, “an army of two” — rather, an army of one supreme commander and one devoted, obliging grunt. In a splendid shot, Assange is seen working on his computer in a huge office; track slowly back, and all the desks are manned by Assanges. Using a myriad of false IDs to make WikiLeaks appear fully staffed, he is everywhere and everyone. What upsets Daniel is that Julian may be a genius but he’s no gentleman. He disses Daniel’s parents and barges in on his affair with the lovely Anke (Sweden’s Alicia Vikander, the young charmer in the Keira Knightley Anna Karenina). The mandarin and the mensch are bound to collide, and when they do, WikiLeaks briefly crashes with them.

Tall, drawling and white-maned (he has dyed his hair ever since being inducted into an Australian cult as a child), Assange radiates a star quality that impresses all spectators, especially himself. He gave WikiLeaks a charismatic face, got more coverage for the site’s reports, including the cover of TIME, even as his prima-donna personality often upstaged the news he was making. In the movie he complains that the media concentrate less on stories about corruption in Kenya than about “how weird I am.” At the end of the film he says that the Internet age gives power to anyone with a grievance and some evidence to back it up. ”It’s all about you,” he proclaims, indirectly alluding to TIME’s 2006 Person of the Year. A pause and a smile. “And a little about me too.”

(READ: TIME’s 2010 cover story on Julian Assange

The movie is all about him and thus about Cumberbatch. The actor, who brought his plummy hauteur to the revived Khan character in Star Trek Into Darkness, and who co-stars in this week’s 12 Years a Slave, manages to occupy, glamorize and parody Assange. He is a mix of tics and grandeur, a creature apart and above, both worldly and otherworldly. No one so conscious of his own legend and so practiced in promoting it is likely also to be a decent, caring human being. That is Daniel, at least in this movie made from his book. But nice doesn’t make for scintillating cinema, not when naughty is there to steal every scene.

(READ: Corliss’s take on Benedict Cumberbatch in Star Trek Into Darkness)

Singer and Condon offer a little sympathy for the devil with occasional references to his peculiar upbringing: his time with the cult known as the Family, and the revelation that he was in his 20s before he met his birth father. He also mentions that he has a 19-year-old son named … Daniel, suggesting a paternal affection for Domscheit-Berg (who is only seven years younger than Assange). Having established the father-son connection, The Fifth Estate then casts Julian as Darth Nader to Daniel’s Luke Skyhacker, dueling not with light sabers but with computer strokes. In the process, the impact of WikiLeaks is reduced to a workplace drama about a brilliant boss who mistreated his one wonderful employee.

Told in a jazzy, chaotic style that throws computer algorithms and text messages on the screen, and with dialogues that the camera keeps swiveling and jerking to catch up with, The Fifth Estate means to be both a filmic and an Internet experience. But it’s really an old-fashioned falling-out-of-love story, as seen from Domscheit-Berg’s perspective. It upends Assange’s battle cry of “Privacy for the individual, transparency for the institutions,” and exposes the exposer as, in Cumberbatch’s words, “a weird, white-haired Australian dude.” This is the film equivalent of celebrity journalism. Which, some would say, is no journalism at all.