In this films's final moments, a post-action coda involving Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) being interviewed, the man who invented Wikileaks slams the books written about him as fiction and openly mocks the idea of a movie based on them. A movie you just watched, one presented as fact, underscoring one of the reasons Wikileaks existed in the first place: take care with who you trust to deliver your information. And Hollywood? You're going to trust them?
One guy you can trust: Bill Condon. His track record includes helmsman duties on the excellent Gods and Monsters and Kinsey, directing an American Idol runner-up to an Academy Award and making the last two Twilight movies watchable and weird. If anyone can take your hand and lead you through the confusional morass of very recent history that was Wikileaks, it's him. Assange is an outsize personality and his work contained a Grand Canyon's worth of bravado, superiority, vision, resistance, conscience and contradiction. Its immediate notoriety and subsequent full-guns attack by Goliath-sized governments with secrets to keep make it less like the story of Facebook and more like a digital All The President's Men, one where Woodward and Bernstein wound up living in an embassy to avoid extradition.
The plot, though packed with incident and allusions to details that blow right past, is pretty simple: Assange, a hacker with world-changing aspirations, creates a way for whistleblowers to indict the powerful without losing their anonymity. His colleague, Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl), grounds the creative genius and tries to keep it all balanced. The powers that be are not amused. A brief moment of celebrity turns to official sanction, friendships are destroyed, obsession trumps wisdom, Chelsea/Bradley Manning and the late investigative journalist Michael Hastings show up, chaos reigns, it all turns to dust. In other words, this needed to be a 10-hour miniseries on HBO, there's that much ground to cover.
But Condon is great at organizing the highlights into primer-sized chunks and giving the act of typing on a keyboard a visual appeal it rarely possesses. He knows where the beats of this story need to land and he takes your hand to guide. If you're still baffled going in, you'll be clearer when you leave, not withstanding Assange's assertions that nothing you've seen is true at all. Condon cuts through the sensational aspects for the building blocks of a cautionary tale about power and the people who tried to expose corruption wherever they could find it, by any means necessary, even when it threatened to endanger innocent lives. He doesn't judge the mistakes or the successes, instead he digs for the personal.
He's helped along by Cumberbatch and Bruhl as both actors give complex, fully watchable performances and by a production design that prioritizes chilly Euro-solemnity and spotlights Cumberbatch's every wiggle, twitch and sneer. Fans of the actor's cocky Sherlock Holmes will find a lot to love here, even as his Assange refuses to be loved at all. Will power-Googling the same information give you the same story in more detail? Yes. More trustworthy and nuanced? Probably. As entertaining? Nope. Hollywood's still good for something.