If you're worried that the director of “The Fifth Estate,” a movie about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, is the same guy who directed a couple of “Twilight Saga” movies, don't be. Bill Condon also helmed “Dreamgirls” and “Kinsey,” and this movie matches them in quality.
Condon does a brilliant job of making wonky computer nerds hunched over laptops cinematic, exciting and thought-provoking. If Condon fills the screen with technobabble, or creates a gigantic, imaginary and empty WikiLeaks office, or circles an actor with a camera in a dizzying manner, it's because the images express the moment in ways words can't.
The movie deals with some fairly dizzying moral complexities.
Assange created WikiLeaks as an electronic platform for people who knew corporate or government secrets to spill them anonymously. WikiLeaks became so good at this that it began breaking stories the world's prestigious news organizations could never access — or wouldn't touch. They, of course, require identified sources and confirmation. Sometimes they are called on to decide whether revealing a truth is more important than the negative consequences that may result.
The story flashes back to 2007 when Assange persuades talented young hacker Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl, “Rush”) to join him in his crusade. Berg begins with a wide-eyed case of hero worship as they bring down a Swiss bank hiding offshore funds illegally, uncover Kenyan election fraud, reveal protests in Tibet and name neo-Nazis in Britain.
Assange quotes Oscar Wilde as his guiding principle: “Give a man a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” He's revolutionizing the information age, rattling some very old and powerful institutions in the process.
But guiding principles can sometimes clash, as when promising to run documents unedited means endangering the lives of outed secret agents — or the sources of the documents themselves.
Gradually, Berg begins to feel manipulated, then morally troubled as Assange presses forward on revealing all — at all costs. Condon cleverly paints Assange as someone who's careless about consequences big and small, and whose ego runs rampant.
Consider the source seems an odd thing to say about a WikiLeaks movie, but “The Fifth Estate” is based in part on a book Berg wrote after breaking from Assange and WikiLeaks. So it's no surprise Berg comes off better. References to the reason for Assange's white hair, his growing up in an Australian cult that used drugs, and his unhappy family life inevitably become linked to moments of strangeness, paranoia, egomania and cruelty.
Still, the verdict on Assange, a brilliant and complex figure, is left open. What makes him do what he does goes largely untouched. He remains an enigma.
What's more clear is that Benedict Cumberbatch does a phenomenal job of capturing the man's look, his physicality, the way he speaks and what's going on inside that enormous brain. It's a great performance.
Ditto for what Brühl does with the character arc of Berg, a smashing piece of acting.
Watch for terrific supporting performances from Laura Linney as a State Department higher-up scrambling to protect her operatives, and her job; Anthony Mackie as a White House national security adviser; and David Thewlis and Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) as scribes at London's Guardian newspaper.
* * * *
The Fifth Estate
Quality: Three stars (out of four)
Director: Bill Condon
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, David Thewlis, Dan Stevens, Laura Linney
Rating: R for language, some violence
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
Theaters: Aksarben, Bluffs 17, Majestic, Midtown, Oakview, Regal, Twin Creek, Village Pointe, Westroads