The Fifth Estate: Portrait of a genius as a bit of a jerk

(Why Julian Assange won’t be crashing the red carpet at TIFF)
Frank Connor / Dreamworks

It’s hard to imagine a movie nipping at the heels of history more closely than The Fifth Estate, which opens the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 5. Just weeks after Bradley Manning (now Chelsea Manning) was slapped with his prison sentence for unleashing military secrets, and as explosive new leaks from Edward Snowden still ricochet through the media, the man who opened the gates for a world of whistle-blowers now makes his entrance as the charismatic anti-hero of a major studio picture.

But WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange won’t be crashing the red carpet at TIFF. Still in asylum at London’s Ecuadorian embassy, avoiding extradition on allegations of sexual assault from Sweden, he’s also a sworn enemy of the film. After seeing the trailer and an early, leaked draft of the script, he’s condemned it as “a massive propaganda attack on WikiLeaks.” But The Fifth Estate’s Oscar-winning director, Bill Condon (Kinsey, Dreamgirls), expects nothing less from the man he has depicted as a megalomaniac. “He’s clever,” says Condon, on the phone from New York. “He conflates anything that might be critical of him as an attack on WikiLeaks. But he may be surprised at how even-handed a portrait it is. Nobody set out to make some kind of hit job. We want to understand what makes him tick. I came to admire him in many ways.”

The Fifth Estate, which opens commercially on Oct. 18, does for Assange what The Social Network did for Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg. It portrays him as a visionary who is pathologically insensitive, a genius with a cruel wit whose single-minded ambition leads him to betray his partners and his sources. Just as Zuckerberg was cast as a pioneer of social media who is devoid of social skills, Assange comes across as a populist crusader with an allergy to actual people. As he admits with a smirk in the film, “I’ve heard people say I dangle on the autistic spectrum.”

With a thatch of white hair, and the bottled-up energy of an albino time bomb, Assange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s the intense British actor whose air of otherworldly intellect has fuelled roles ranging from Sherlock Holmes to the villain in the latest Star Trek movie. (Suddenly ubiquitous, Cumberbatch also stars in two other Oscar-pedigree movies premiering at TIFF—12 Years a Slave and August: Osage County.) “He’s able to play the most complicated emotions,” says Condon. “And there’s something about Benedict and Julian that does intersect. First of all, [Benedict] is crazy smart. There’s a really extraordinary intelligence that’s difficult to fake. Even physically . . . ” Then Condon trails off, perhaps loath to talk about the fact that Cumberbatch’s face is, well, as unusual as his name. Finally, he adds, “There are things about Assange that are initially strange and off-putting. Benedict can capture those, then convey just so many layers of what’s going on underneath.”

The drama pivots on Assange’s fractious relationship with his ex-colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), whose book, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website, informed the script along with another book by two British journalists. Engineered as a propulsive thriller, the story is driven by the mystery of Assange’s past. He’s depicted as a kind of revolutionary cult leader, haunted by a childhood stint in a New Age sect that had all the kids dye their hair blond. As one character notes, “only someone so obsessed with his own secrets could have come up with a way of exposing everyone else’s.” So is Assange hero or villain? Both, says Condon. “The whole idea of the movie is to lay out that question, to grapple with those issues of transparency versus privacy in the brave new world of citizen journalism. Ideally you’ll change your mind about the issues many times as you watch it.”

It seems Assange’s mind is already made up. But in a final twist of its mirror-ball narrative, the film anticipates his response in a coda that has him addressing the camera with wry incredulity. “A WikiLeaks movie?” Cumberbatch’s Assange asks. He then notes that the audience will have to “look beyond this story, any story” to find the truth. Just don’t expect Assange himself to be leaking it any time soon.

Note to readers: This article has been updated since publication to reflect that Assange faces allegations — not charges — of sexual assault.