Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl in The Fifth Estate
Credit: Frank Connor

The WikiLeaks film The Fifth Estate has proven to be as divisive as its subject.

The journalism drama, about the early David vs. Goliath victories of Julian Assange’s truth-telling tech movement, kicked off the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday night.

There was praise for Benedict Cumberbatch’s incarnation of the white-haired cyber-guru — who is a hero to some, and an instigator of chaos to others. And the film got an extended standing ovation at the premiere, but early reviews were generally harsh, which could sap its Oscar hopes.

EW’s Owen Gleiberman split from the naysayers and gave The Fifth Estate a strong endorsement, calling it a “feverishly edgy and exciting drama.”

At the after-party launching the 38th annual festival, which is seen throughout Hollywood as the official start of good-movie-season — reactions to The Fifth Estate were so-so. The movie, directed by Dreamgirls and Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon definitely had some supporters, but there tended to be more zeal from its detractors.

The unexplained cancellation of a press screening earlier in the day didn’t help matters, although it probably led to fewer published reactions from the scores of critics who’ve traveled from around the world for the 10-day film showcase. Many noted the irony of withholding a film that is about the dissemination of secrets.

A handful of reviews that immediately followed the gala premiere compared it unfavorably with The Social Network, another film about a brilliant, game-changing, well … jerk who is attempting to blaze a trail across the ever-expanding digital frontier.

Gleiberman also made the comparison, but from a different perspective: “The Fifth Estate captures the tenor of whistleblowing in the brave new world, when the Internet gets turned into a billboard for anyone with the inclination to spill secrets. Call it the anti-social network.”

Eric Kohn of Indiewire called it “an uneven, intermittently thoughtful but largely preachy overview of WikiLeaks’ rising influence.” His colleague John Anderson, writing on Indiewire’s Thompson on Hollywood blog, was more generous, saying: “It’s early to be speculating about awards, but Cumberbatch has certainly accomplished the unlikely, making a chilly public character a sympathetic martyr to a noble cause.” But he went on to criticize the film overall, particularly Condon’s use of metaphorical office imagery to create a visual representation of impossible-to-see online networks.

Variety’s Dennis Harvey condemned at the same time he complimented: “Both the kindest and most damning thing you can say about The Fifth Estate is that it primarily hobbles itself by trying to cram in more context-needy material than any single drama should have to bear.”

Daniel Brühl (perhaps best known as the Nazi sniper from Inglourious Basterds) also got high marks for his more restrained and subtle performance as the movie’s conscience, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Assange’s right-hand man and the author of one of the books that inspired the movie. (Brühl is also at the festival co-starring in the Formula 1 racing drama Rush.)

An unqualified rave came from Deadline’s Oscar scribe Pete Hammond, who compared it favorably with socially conscious thrillers from the 1970s such as All the President’s Men: “Condon’s direction is reminiscent of the style employed by Alan Pakula in that film and others from the era like The Parallax View and Klute. And it moves like a freight train. Naysayers may quibble with the dense storyline, but the acting is uniformly excellent.”

Assange himself recently weighed in on the movie from Ecuador’s embassy in London, where he has taken sanctuary to avoid extradition amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Speaking with Australian journalist Marc Fennell of The Feed, he is clearly perturbed by The Fifth Estate, which he views as an attack. Assange hasn’t seen the full film, but as you can tell from this clip of him complaining about Cumberbatch’s accent — the actor really does nail it perfectly.

In his praise of the movie, EW’s Gleiberman added: “What I think a lot of the early, negative reaction to The Fifth Estate has missed is that the film is canny enough to present Assange not as a hero but as a highly ambiguous scoundrel-crusader who boldly test-drove — the way Shawn Fanning did with Napster — the new power of the Internet.”

EW’s Prizefighter Analysis: I liked the film better than most critics. It worked for me, but then I’m a sucker for underdog take-down tales. Much of what WikiLeaks exposed in those early years deserved its share of cleansing sunlight: video of U.S. Apache helicopters machine-gunning Reuters journalists in 2007, Icelandic banks engaged in a massive market-rigging conspiracy, to name just two.

Academy members are older, richer, and may be less anti-authoritarian than yours truly — but there’s no denying Cumberbatch’s infectious, righteous rage as Assange, a man so blinded by the injustice he witnesses that he can only see things in black and white. If there is an Oscar-contender here, it’s Cumberbatch, who shows that the ugly side of Assange goes beyond his narcissism, bitter rudeness, or self-mythologizing deception.

Assange, at least as this movie depicts him, goes astray because he can’t see that the resistance fighters exposed by his document-dumps share his fight against injustice and cruelty. They are working with the American government from within terrorist cells or despotic regimes, risking their lives, but to this Assange there is only his cause — which makes him a mini-dictator in his own borderless, digital world. Award season voters are often entranced by such self-destructive anti-heroes.

The Fifth Estate opens on Oct. 11, but the festival reviews are a setback. A movie like this relies on strong award-season chatter to help build an audience, so a positive backlash from other reviewers will be necessary. Once bad buzz starts, it’s very hard to reverse. Award season voters like to jump on bandwagons, but aren’t known for helping to put the wheels back on them.

The Fifth Estate
  • Movie
  • 124 minutes