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MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Fifth Estate' gets a lot right and a lot wrong

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From left, Benedict Cumberbatch (Julian Assange), Carice van Houten (Birgitta Jonsdottir), Daniel Bruhl (Daniel Domscheit-Berg) and Moritz Bleibtreu (Marcus) star in "The Fifth Estate." (Special Photo: DreamWorks Pictures)

The Fifth Estate

(PG-13)

2 out of 4 stars

With “The Fifth Estate,” director Bill Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer do what few filmmakers have done in the past. They take a controversial, non-fictional, highly polarizing figure and present a non-judgmental, politically neutral film. Because the subject is Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks website, that was really their only option. Unless you never watch the news or go online, you’re already familiar with Assange and probably already have a very strong opinion of him, pro or con.

The opening credit sequence — which reportedly took over a year to assemble — is the best scene in the movie. In less than two minutes, it covers the history of news coverage in America — from the colonial printing press up to online-only newspapers and offers more content than the remainder of the over two-hour production.

This is the perfect lead-in to the movement — coined later on as “the fifth estate” — more or less started by Assange that many view as the beginning of the end of competent, thoughtful journalism. It was Assange’s opinion that the only way to expose and thus expunge rampant worldwide graft, corruption and the secretive workings of military operations was to post unfiltered and, more importantly, unverified slabs of data on WikiLeaks for all the world to see. Whatever you might think of his actions, it is not “reporting.” It is the electronic equivalent of supermarket check-out tabloids where anything goes; nothing is off-limits and sticking with just the facts ranks near the bottom of the priority list.

All over the place stylistically and spending far too much time concentrating on the look instead of the content, Condon’s film is the cinematic equivalent of a WikiLeaks post. He and Singer (adapting two books with very long titles) get as much right as they do wrong. Striving for the immediacy and cultural impact of “The Social Network,” they assemble a series of events but fail to provide any meaningful connecting thread.

The Australian-born Assange (played brilliantly by Englishman Benedict Cumberpatch), is a pale, white-haired collection of quirks and ticks whose misplaced ego and faux-rebel posturing dwarfs his knowledge of world events and politics. Unlike Murrow, Cronkite, the game-changers of the ’60s and Woodward and Bernstein with Watergate, Assange shoots from the hip with a sawed-off shotgun. Everything must be done now; otherwise some other techno-geek will beat him to the punch.

The concept of WikiLeaks was to provide safe haven for whistleblowers that wanted to expose bad things while remaining anonymous. This is a deadly, double-edged approach. Anyone with a gripe or ax to grind could say whatever they wanted while hiding in nebulous cyberspace. To be completely fair to Assange — and to those who provided him with content — some of the data that eventually made it on to the site was factual and needed to be exposed. WikiLeaks’ biggest coup came with the toppling of a money-laundering European bank based on rock-solid information provided by bank employees.

This solidified the belief in Assange in the eyes of German computer-whiz Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl, “Rush”), who had first met Assange online and shared his righteous vision. It was in the wake of the bank takedown that Berg all too slowly began to realize that he and Assange had vastly different visions regarding the future of WikiLeaks and this is about the only part in the narrative the filmmakers capture with gusto.

The biggest feather in Assange’s cap came with the posting of the reams of top-secret U.S. military data related to the war in Afghanistan provided by soldier Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning. Up until this point, Assange was viewed as little more than a misguided spotlight hog but the Afghanistan situation turned him into (whether deserved or not) an international fugitive and now a defacto prisoner living in a small room at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

If you think Assange is a “righteous dude” who only wanted to expose the truth, go online and take a look at the interview he had just this past Sunday with ABC news’ George Stephanopoulos. The same guy whose mission was to post often detrimental, always unfiltered and unchecked global-shifting stories on the Internet complained that the producers of this film didn’t run the script by him beforehand.

The long and short of it is that WikiLeaks — while serving a modicum of good with questionable methods — wasn’t about doing the right thing, it was the vehicle for Julian Assange to become a celebrity and it worked. He’s very famous and will never breathe outside air again. (Touchstone/DreamWorks)