By Jeff Labrecque
Updated October 17, 2013 at 12:00 PM EDT
  • Movie

The Season of Benedict Cumberbatch officially begins on Friday, when the popular Sherlock actor appears in two festival films with Oscar ambitions. In 12 Years a Slave, which opens limited in six cities, he plays a morally compromised slave owner in the 1840s. But it’s The Fifth Estate where Cumberbatch takes center stage, starring as controversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Influenced by The Social Network and All the President’s Men, director Bill Condon’s film tells the still-unfolding story of Assange’s underground website, which became a clearinghouse for industrial and state secrets leaked by whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning (né Bradley Manning), the U.S. Army private who published thousands of secret government documents about the wars in the Middle East.

Cumberbatch is icy and intense as Assange, the platinum-haired tech wiz who finds ways to rattle the cages of the most powerful organizations on the planet with a few simple key strokes. Daniel Brühl (Inglorious Basterds) co-stars as Assange’s more idealistic lieutenant, Daniel Berg, while Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci portray the U.S. State Department staffers who can feel the ground shift under their feet when WikiLeaks exposes some of the Americans’ dirty laundry.

One notable critic who’s already chimed in about the movie is Assange himself. Long story short… he didn’t like it. But what about the rest of the nation’s critics? It’s impossible to dislike Cumberbatch, yes? But even if they disapprove, he still has other chances to redeem himself: he also co-stars in the star-studded August: Osage County (Dec. 25), and provided the voice of a certain dragon in The Hobbit sequel (Dec. 13).

Click below to read what the critics are saying:

Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly)

“Condon is shrewd enough to depict Assange not as a hero but as a scoundrel crusader who tests the power of the Internet. The Fifth Estate is flawed (it grips the brain but not the heart), yet it feverishly exposes the tenor of whistle-blowing in the brave new world, with the Internet as a billboard for anyone out to spill secrets. Call it the anti-social network.”

Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times)

“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.”

“Told in a jazzy, chaotic style that throws computer algorithms and text messages on the screen, and with dialogues that the camera keeps swiveling and jerking to catch up with, The Fifth Estate means to be both a filmic and an Internet experience. But it’s really an old-fashioned falling-out-of-love story…”

Ann Hornaday (Washington Post)

“As a piece of filmed entertainment, The Fifth Estate shows why things like authorial point of view and visual sensibility are so essential in bringing such stories to life. Unlike its most obvious predecessor, The Social Network, this film doesn’t have much of either, and the weakness shows.”

Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle)

“In a few decades, when time sorts out the effects of WikiLeaks and other Internet sites like it, the very ambivalence of The Fifth Estate might very well be seen as a virtue, as a document of an another era’s honest confusion. But today, on a Friday in October in 2013, the movie’s uncertainty doesn’t help.”

Richard Roeper (Chicago Sun-Times)

“This is neither hagiography nor character assassination. The Fifth Estate raises fascinating, complex questions about the evolving nature of journalism, and whether publishing everything and anything with not a single stroke of editing is a victory for freedom — or a Big Brother fantasy that could get people killed.”

Eric Kohn (IndieWire)

“Unlike Fincher’s eloquent approach [in The Social Network], however, The Fifth Estate has none of the observational insight found in Aaron Sorkin’s wry script; instead, Condon’s take messily oscillates between ham-fisted ideological sermons and the ingredients of a cyber thriller.”

Ty Burr (Boston Globe)

The Fifth Estate moves along at a groovy clip, and it has been polished to a high Hollywood sheen. The performances are uniformly excellent; the opening-credits montage that packs into two minutes the entire history of information gathering is a marvel of concept and editing.”

A.O. Scott (New York Times)

The Fifth Estate tries to have it both ways, to harness the righteous, transgressive thrill of the WikiLeaks project and also to wag a cautionary finger when it appears to go too far.”

Claudia Puig (USA Today)

“For all its topicality, the film fails to rustle up suspense. Scenes of computer screens lit up with indecipherable code are hardly riveting. And the filmmakers’ efforts at artier, surreal visuals are more jarring than illuminating. Director Bill Condon fails to blend these elements with the human drama or the thriller aspects of the story.”

John DeFore (Hollywood Reporter)

“The most compelling thing here by far is the film’s vision of Assange, by all accounts a man of enormous self-regard and slippery ethics. Benedict Cumberbatch has the character in hand from the start — his way of brushing into another’s space and making it his office…”

The Fifth Estate

Overall Metacritic rating (1-100): 50

Rotten Tomatoes: 36 percent

The Fifth Estate

  • Movie
  • R
  • 124 minutes
  • Bill Condon
  • R.J. Cutler