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posted: 10/17/2013 6:00 AM

Cumberbatch boosts fact-based 'Fifth Estate' to tolerable drama

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  • Benedict Cumberbatch plays WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in the information-overloaded drama "The Fifth Estate."

    Benedict Cumberbatch plays WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in the information-overloaded drama "The Fifth Estate."

  • Video: "The Fifth Estate" trailer


Benedict Cumberbatch has recently played a spaced-out supervillain in "Star Trek Into Darkness," and appears as a relatively civilized slave owner in the new "12 Years a Slave."

Now the London-born actor reaches the pinnacle of his thespian abilities as the messianic founder of WikiLeaks in Bill Condon's fact-based, information-clogged drama "The Fifth Estate."

With his stringy, bleached-blond hair sloppily framing near-albino features, Cumberbatch's Julian Assange resembles a distant cousin of Draco Malfoy at Hogwarts.

Cumberbatch's elegantly sinister performance as Assange -- a character rife with mystery and dark intelligence -- almost salvages a movie front-loaded with so much confusing information that you might suspect there will be a quiz at the end.

It doesn't help that Condon further buries his characters under a distracting avalanche of flashy graphics, split-screen visuals and animations.

"The Fifth Estate" begins in October 2010 when The New York Times, Germany's Der Spiegel and London's Guardian simultaneously print thousands of classified U.S. documents released by Assange and his WikiLeaks website.

Then, in an ill-advised bit of time-shifting, the story abruptly flashes back to 2007 when Assange first meets German activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl). The two hit it off so well that Assange invites him to become his metaphorical and literal partner-in-crime.

(Didn't Condon and "West Wing" screenwriter Josh Singer have enough confidence to let their story unfold without desperately pulling an exciting scene out of the third act to beef up the beginning?)

Assange and Daniel become a dynamic duo of Internet Robin Hoods, robbing information from the rich and powerful, and giving the truth to the poor shocked masses.

As Assange plunges into his mission to leak emails revealing corruption in the world's leading banks, massacres in Afghanistan and U.S. military mistakes, Daniel has trouble with his new lover (Alicia Vikander), a generic character who whines that he gives all his energies and time to Assange and not to her.

Vikander's girlfriend apparently exists only to give Daniel some superficial conflict in loyalties, and she comes off as a narrow-minded harpy.

These are all fairly one-dimensional characters, including the U.S. State Department officials (Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci) whose jobs are on the line because of the WikiLeaks revelations.

Even the charismatic Assange can't get through a single scene without issuing platitudes and slogans.

"Courage is contagious!" he says. "If you give a man a mask," he says, "he'll tell you the truth!"

Assange hates editing raw information and demands it be released unchanged. A Guardian reporter (David Thewlis) insists incriminating data be vetted before release so that innocent people aren't harmed by WikiLeaks.

"The Fifth Estate" has big issues about the media and journalistic responsibilities to discuss, but these discussions come across as arch, academic discourses, not passionate, spontaneous exchanges between colleagues.

Condon further erodes his drama's realistic tone by using pretentiously arty metaphors. (When Assange reveals to Daniel that he's the only person actually working for WikiLeaks, we see a newsroom full of reporters at their desks, and all of them are Assange. What is this, "Being Julian Assange"?)

Ahhh. If only Aaron "The Social Network" Sorkin had written the screenplay to "The Fifth Estate."

That would have been something.

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