In its own Hollywood way, "The Fifth Estate" is quite an ambitious film. It wants to create a viable portrait of Julian Assange, the wildly controversial founder of WikiLeaks, dramatize the significant but complex questions his work raises and surround both of those themes with the kind of personal dramas so beloved by mainstream films.
The surprise in this film, starring actor-of-the-moment Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange and Daniel Brühl as his associate Daniel Domscheit-Berg and directed by Bill Condon, is not that all of these goals are met — that would be too much to expect — but which ones are successful and which ones prove to be beyond everyone's grasp.
Given the talents of Cumberbatch and Brühl, whose credits include "Good Bye, Lenin," "Inglourious Basterds" and the current "Rush," it is no surprise that the interplay between Assange and Domscheit-Berg, the way their relationship shifted from engaged collaborators to enraged antagonists, is the film's greatest strength.
As written by "West Wing" veteran Josh Singer and directed by Condon, who took on a similar task with "Kinsey," "The Fifth Estate" does a solid job making audiences consider the pros and cons of issues involving governmental secrecy, complicity with power and the price of openness. The back and forth on-screen will not replace the conversation in the New York Review of Books, but seeing a studio film deal with issues at all is more than we're used to.
Ironically, "The Fifth Estate" is at its most frustrating where it might have been suspected of being strongest, which is the creation of drama outside the main events involving the leads. The periodic attempts the film makes to add peripheral interest to the main story come up short in ways Cumberbatch and Brühl manage to avoid.
"The Fifth Estate" opens in 2010 with WikiLeaks' greatest triumph, the coordinated release through three mainstream outlets — the New York Times, the U.K.'s Guardian and Germany's Der Spiegel — of a trove of leaked sensitive materials, including 400,000 documents from the Iraq war and hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic cables. It should have been a moment of shared triumph for Domscheit-Berg and Assange, but by this point they were barely speaking to each other.
Because Domscheit-Berg's book, "Inside WikiLeaks," is one of screenwriter Singer's key sources, we then flash back a few years and begin to see events from his, rather than Assange's, point of view.
With Assange criticizing the film vehemently in numerous forums and the filmmakers freely admitting that a certain amount of fictionalizing takes place, complete veracity is not to be expected, but, as with "The Social Network," the relationship between the protagonists feels emotionally accurate.
The flashbacks begin in Berlin in 2008, and introduce us to Domscheit-Berg, the resident computer genius for a bank, who is anti-establishment enough to ride his bike through the office as attractive co-worker Anke ("A Royal Affair's" Alicia Vikander) looks on approvingly.
Domscheit-Berg and Assange meet at something called the Chaos Communication Congress, a hackers assembly where Assange, though he established WikiLeaks two years earlier, is still pretty much an unknown quantity.
Given how anyone who knows anything about WikiLeaks today can tell you that it was then-Pvt. Bradley Manning who leaked all those Iraq war documents, it is fascinating to be reminded that the organization's original attraction was its ability, through elaborate encryption technology, to hide the names of leakers and remove the fear of retribution. As Assange himself says, quoting Oscar Wilde, "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."
Obsessed and arrogant, committed and charismatic, Assange is certainly a complicated, compelling character, and Cumberbatch does a convincing job of creating a lone wolf provocateur who speaks in slogans like "change is contagious" and never doubts he is on the side of the angels. Guardian editor David Leigh, whose book is one of the film's sources, has been quoted as saying Cumberbatch's imperturbable performance is "creepily like the Julian I knew," and it is the heart of the film as well.
Though inevitably a bit overshadowed by his colleague, Brühl does excellent work as well by bringing intelligence and energy to what could have been a second-banana role. He makes us understand how seductive the WikiLeaks mission was when it involved obvious bad guys like Swiss banks committing tax fraud as well as how shocked he was when he realized he and Assange comprised the entire organization.
Then comes trouble in the form of the Bradley Manning episode, the biggest leak of classified information ever. While Assange is absolutely insistent that "this is information the world needs to know," Domscheit-Berg worries that people's lives will needlessly be put at risk, and fissures in the friendship start to expand.
While this sounds somewhat schematic, it plays better than that because the two actors bring quite a bit to their roles, and because the script has worked hard to make the issues feel real and relevant.
Less successful, unfortunately, are "The Fifth Estate's" peripheral dramas. Subplots like the understandable irritation Domscheit-Berg's eventual girlfriend Anke feels at Assange's constant presence and a bigger story line about U.S. State Department types Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci worrying about a Libyan informant the leaks jeopardize are undramatic and unconvincing.
Whenever "The Fifth Estate" leaves the involving one-on-one drama between Assange and Domscheit-Berg, you wish it wouldn't. That's one truth that doesn't need to be leaked.
'The Fifth Estate'
MPAA rating: R for language and some violence
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Playing: In general releaseCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun