Absent Assange looms over debut of WikiLeaks drama

By Jake Coyle

Associated Press

TORONTO — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange may be holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, but he’s very present at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Opening this year’s festival is the premiere of Bill Condon’s dramatization of Assange and WikiLeaks, “The Fifth Estate” — a film with which Assange refused to cooperate. It’s the only movie at Toronto that has the distinction of being called “a massive propaganda attack” by its primary subject.

That was the opinion Assange dished out on the film in a video link in January in which he waved a supposed copy of the film’s script. He has also called it the “anti-WikiLeaks movie.”

But the film, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the Australian activist, is far from the character assassination Assange feared, but rather a layered, complicated portrait of him and his whistleblower website as laudatory as it is critical.

“When we tried to actually make contact — Benedict made the most overt gestures — we were rebuffed,” director Bill Condon said in a recent interview. “He has the sense of it being something very different than what it is.”

The film’s screenplay by Josh Singer was partly based on “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website,” by Daniel Domscheit-Berg, an early WikiLeaks collaborator who publicly and bitterly fell out with Assange; and “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy,” by British journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding. Both are books Assange disapproves of.

The point of view of “The Fifth Estate” is thus largely from the perspective of Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruhl). Assange, played meticulously by Cumberbatch in one of the finest leading performances by the British actor, is portrayed as a visionary with democratic ideals for information and altruistic motives for whistleblowers, and alternatively, as a lying, reckless revolutionary (perhaps justifiably) consumed by paranoia, who ultimately sabotages his own creation by his refusal to consider the lives of revealed sources in published documents.

“You change your mind about him many, many times during the course of the movie,” says Condon, the director of both parts of “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn” and “Dreamgirls.” “The idea was to present this incredibly complicated and, as we can see, relevant issue of the struggle in this age between privacy and transparency in all of its complication. And in a similar way, present him in all his complexity.”

“The Fifth Estate,” which Disney will release Oct. 18, debuts in Toronto with great currency since so much of the WikiLeaks story is unfinished.

Assange is still, as he has been for more than a year, taking asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden over facing questioning about a sexual assault charge. WikiLeaks’ greatest source, Chelsea Manning (the Army private formerly known as Bradley Manning who famously leaked the trove of military documents known as the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, as well as the cables of U.S. diplomats), was just weeks ago found guilty of espionage and other crimes. She recently appealed for a presidential pardon. Meanwhile, Edward Snowden, the leaker of NSA documents, has undergone an asylum drama similar Assange’s, eventually being granted a year’s stay by Russia.

“This is ongoing history and people’s interests are at stake,” says Kristinn Hrafnsson, a representative for WikiLeaks. Judging from a copy of the screenplay, he calls the film “a fiction that tries to present itself as a reflection of reality.”

“It portrays wrongfully that people were put in harm’s way as a result of those leaks and the publications by WikiLeaks,” says Hrafnsson. “That is, of course, in line with the talking points of the Pentagon. But not even the prosecution in the Private Manning trial was able to introduce those things.”

While Condon laments for Cumberbatch’s sake that the actor wasn’t able to meet with Assange to study his behavior, he sees some advantage to making a film about Assange without his input.

“There’s so much in him that I admire. At a certain point, I thought it was an advantage not to spend time with him,” says Condon. “So much has been written and recorded, I felt from what I knew about him that it would either be an attempt at manipulation on his part or that there would be things that would make me like him less than I actually do.”

The film openly acknowledges its potential bias and includes a playful, fictional rebuttal from Assange, cobbled together from his tweets and interviews. In a way, “The Fifth Estate” gives Assange the last word. However, when Assange does eventually see the film, he’s likely to have a few more to say, too.