WikiLeaks Attacks on Assange Movie, ‘Fifth Estate’ Director Fires Back

Mark Deming
Movie Talk
Benedict Cumberbatch, left, plays Julian Assange in 'The Fifth Estate'
Benedict Cumberbatch, left, plays Julian Assange in 'The Fifth Estate'

A war of words is brewing between WikiLeaks and the filmmakers of an upcoming movie about the famed activist website and its controversial founder Julian Assange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch). And Yahoo! Movies has gotten some perspective from film's director, Bill Condon.

Tuesday evening, DreamWorks released the first trailer for "The Fifth Estate," a fact-based drama about Assange and the rise of WikiLeaks. Moments later, WikiLeaks posted a condemnation of the film on their Twitter account, declaring, "'The Fifth Estate' trailer has just been released. Don't be fooled. It implies we gave Iran nukes and killed 2,000."

The tweet refers to a scene at an Iranian military complex in which military informants meet with American agents; it does not appear in the trailer, and the filmmakers have insisted it does not appear in the final cut of the film. In a later tweet, WikiLeaks stated, "Our comments are based on the script used during filming, not, as the dir Bill Condon falsely states an old script (though we have them too)."

Assange has not been quiet about his feelings regarding the movie, declaring it a "massive propaganda attack" in a speech at Oxford University in January. But, according to Condon, the WikiLeaks founder also lent a helping hand to the production.

Julian Assange
Julian Assange

In an interview with Yahoo! Movies on Tuesday (before we were aware of WikiLeaks's aforementioned disapproving tweet), Condon pointed out that Cumberbatch was in touch with whistle blower Assange during much of the making of "The Fifth Estate." "Ultimately the most direct communication we had was through Benedict, who was in touch with [Assange] by e-mail," Condon said. "[Assange] refused to see him, sadly, but there was a conversation that started there and went on for most of while we were shooting the movie, and then I think has continued."

But the director also acknowledged Assange's vocal dissent. "[Assange] did issue certain proclamations even as we started shooting; he called it 'The anti-WikLeaks movie,' which it couldn't be further from the truth," Condon said. "It's a movie that does present the sides of many issues, the different sides, but when it comes to WikiLeaks, I think it's mostly a celebration of the incredible, sort of noble ideas behind it, and the idealism that it reflected, especially in its early days."

Bill Condon
Bill Condon

Condon insists that the film offers a fair picture of Assange's organization that publicly posted classified documents, and that the dramatized version of real events illustrates WikiLeaks's global impact. "Assange tends to conflate any conversation about himself with conversation of WikiLeaks, but we really tried every day, and its been part of developing the movie and also putting it together in the editing room, this I think is a movie that asks the questions but doesn't provide the answers," the director said.

"It is about having a balance," he said, also pointing to the complex nature of a similar case in the news: CIA operative Edward Snowden, who leaked details of several top-secret U.S. and British government mass surveillance programs to the press. "It's very hard to come down cleanly on one side or the other because they are so complicated. And I think Assange himself might be surprised at that. This is in no way to my mind an attack on him. And certainly Benedict has no interest in playing something that wasn't going to try to, you know ... He's a great actor, and he saw his job as trying to get inside the mind and soul of this person."

Condon is best known for his work on the movies "Dreamgirls," "Kinsey," and both "Twilight: Breaking Dawn" films. Screenwriter John Singer, a veteran of "The West Wing" and "Fringe," adapted the script from Daniel Domscheit-Berg's book "Inside WikiLeaks." The film is scheduled to open in theaters in August.

Matthew McDaniel contributed to this report.

Watch 'The Fifth Estate' Trailer: