The best part of the Toronto Film Festival’s opening night selection, The Fifth Estate, came when most of the audience thought the movie was over. After two hours of watching Benedict Cumberbatch play WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, we’d gotten a definitive ending, a post-script, an epilogue, and a fade-out … and just as people began to rise from their seats, Cumberbatch again appeared onscreen, his Assange talking to an unseen interviewer in a haughty Australian accent that dripped with condescension. “The WikiLeaks movie?” he smirked, in response to some just-missed question. “Which one?”
It was a clever, meta touch acknowledging both the multiple Assange movies — in addition to The Fifth Estate, documentarian Alex Gibney put out We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks this past summer — and the WikiLeaks founder’s own complicated feelings about all that coverage. “More like the anti-WikiLeaks movie,” Cumberbatch’s Assange then growled, recalling the actual Assange’s quote that The Fifth Estate, directed by Bill Condon, was “a serious propaganda attack on WikiLeaks.” (He is also no fan of Cumberbatch’s accent, so that’s two strikes.)
So was Assange right to dis the movie as part of a smear campaign against him? Well, yes and no: Condon equivocates throughout the movie, at one point literally telling the audience that it’s up to us to decide whether Assange is hero or villain for dumping secret government documents onto WikiLeaks, but the movie’s perspective is clearly stacked against him. For one, the central character is not Assange but his embittered ex-partner, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl); The Fifth Estate also cross-cuts to a sympathetic foreign attache (played by Laura Linney) whose sources are dangerously exposed by Assange, meaning that the movie’s two point-of-view characters are allied against the WikiLeaks founder. Assange didn’t cooperate with the film, but it’s based in part on Domscheit-Berg’s own book, so its biases are on the table.
Buzz at the after-party was muted, with some comparing the film unfavorably to The Social Network (or even to Ron Howard’s upcoming race-car drama Rush, where Bruhl plays yet another German in thrall to an arguably more talented blond) and even the most positive notices beginning, “Well, I didn’t think it was quite as bad as everyone else … ” Still, Cumberbatch was warmly received, even if that home-run casting choice proved to ultimately be more of a double or triple. But at least there’s a priceless scene of his Assange dancing, loose-limbed, at a nightclub in Iceland! “He’s like an octopus,” notes one bemused character; keep an eye out for those GIFs, because they’re going to be tremendous.