'The Fifth Estate' review: Sharp acting in a disappointing movie

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Benedict Cumberbatch as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in

Benedict Cumberbatch as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in a scene from "The Fifth Estate." Photo Credit: AP

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And the award for Best Actor in a Disappointing Movie goes to... Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange in "The Fifth Estate."

Cumberbatch, also arriving on screens today in a smaller role in the must-see "12 Years a Slave," captures the Assange we recognize from the news: the enigmatic WikiLeaks founder with the dead-white hair and constrastingly passionate dedication to exposing the secrets of the powerful. But Cumberbatch taps into another Assange, a man who, in this telling, suffered an abusive childhood. The result is an interpretation of Assange that may or may not be correct, but he's a convincing, familiar figure: the wounded soul striking back from his safe, dark corner of cyberspace.

If only the rest of this movie were up to Cumberbatch's standards. Based on two books, one a memoir by Assange's former colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by a likable Daniel Brühl), "The Fifth Estate" never truly penetrates its mysterious subject. It completely avoids the biggest question hanging over the man -- namely, allegations of sexual misconduct with two women -- and instead focuses on his refusal to redact the names of undercover operatives when publishing more than 250,000 diplomatic cables.

Directed by Bill Condon (the final "Twilight" movies) and written by Josh Singer, "The Fifth Estate" -- the title is a phrase loosely applied to citizen journalists -- feels wonky and theoretical. A subplot involving Alexander Siddig as an endangered informant, plus Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as panicked government insiders, add only superficial thrills. David Thewlis, as Guardian journalist Nick Davies, gets the thankless job of summing up the lessons we've all learned in a closing speech.

The film's best sequence is its opening credits, a history of information from the hieroglyph to the Gutenberg press to today's speedy streams of ones and zeros. For the most part, though, when Cumberbatch isn't on the screen, it grows dim.

PLOT The story of Julian Assange and the founding of WikiLeaks.

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CAST Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl

LENGTH 2:08.

BOTTOM LINE A fine, savvy performance from Cumberbatch as the white-haired Assange, but the rest of the movie isn't nearly as sharp or insightful.

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