TORONTO — Benedict Cumberbatch gives a nuanced portrayal of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, which premiered Thursday night at the Toronto International Film Festival, and he has an equally nuanced view of the legal case that sprang from the historic information leak that Assange published to the site.
Asked about the 35-year prison sentence given to Chelsea Manning, the former United States Army soldier who leaked hundreds of thousands of documents from the Afghan and Iraqi Wars, Cumberbatch said, "I wasn't in the courtroom; I've been following it... it's pretty devastating."
That said, Cumberbatch understands that principal and criminal codes are sometimes at conflict.
"I don't think it's as simple as that, really," the English actor said when asked whether Manning is a hero or villain. "I think what she did was incredibly brave, and at the same time, a legal process had to take place. It's a very complex issue to just come down on one side or the other."
Cumberbatch's Fifth Estate colleagues all praised Manning, as well.
"I'm relieved that it wasn't longer, frankly, because there was always that danger hanging over her head," director Bill Condon said of Manning's sentence. "I'm hopeful that there will be real leniency when it comes to getting a shorter sentence."
Screenwriter Josh Singer said, "You know that Chelsea Manning is up for parole in seven or eight years, so hopefully she won't serve all 35 years. I think it's very brave of Chelsea Manning to actually face up to the law and actually say, 'Look, I've done this, I did this for a reason, and I'm willing to do the time for that.'"
Still, there was a reticency to make any sweeping statements about international law, transparency, or the character of Assange himself.
"I think it's a question we start asking in the movie: What should be public, what should be private? Who should make those decisions?" Singer said.
"I think he's one of the most important and fascinating figures of our time," Condon said of the WikiLeaks founder, who is living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in fear of extradition to Sweden over sexual misconduct charges.
The movie portrays Assange as an idealistic, driven devotee of corporate and government transparency, but with an outsized ego, double-edged charm that borders on personality disorder, and genius that does not compute doubt or counter-arguments.
"Julian is really an interesting thinker; he was right there at the beginning of the cyberpunk movement, which was all about freedom of expression and the internet," Condon added. "He was there right at the beginning, keeping ads off the internet, stuff like that he was involved with right from the start."