10/21/2013 10:44 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Assange and Arnold: A Dash of Politics at the Movies

It wasn't a big weekend in movies except for the stunning if a tad overrated Gravity, but two noteworthy political figures had prominent roles. Unfortunately for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, it didn't prove to be a big box office weekend for either.

Actually, that's wrong. Things went as the real life Assange hoped, with the ambivalently critical cinematic depiction of him, The Fifth Estate, absolutely tanking. Assange and his allies had launched a concerted campaign against the film for its supposed inaccuracies and bias.

In contrast, the Sylvester Stallone/Schwarzenegger starrer Escape Plan merely performed below expectations. But with mixed reviews and a generic sounding title that I expect helped trigger a somewhat blah response in the potential audience, the prison break movie will have to do very well internationally to offset box office which will be a small fraction of what Schwarzenegger commanded in his heyday.

In reality, Escape Plan is an entertaining flick, and the reviews for Schwarzenegger's actual performance -- yes, he talks a lot and even acts and stuff -- as the mysterious Germanic inmate Stallone's betrayed security expert encounters in the ultimate supermax prison, are quite good.

It's just that throwing a generic title on what looks like a picture very much from a tired genre -- the classic '80s action flick -- isn't a help for Schwarzenegger in his third such released film in a row since leaving the governorship of California.

But first to Assange, and a film that is actually about politics (though Escape Plan has a certain political tinge, and not what you might think.)

From a political standpoint, The Fifth Estate is a mess. After setting up Assange, brilliantly played by one of my favorite British actors, Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch, as a world historical figure through the utilization of Wikileaks, the film seems to panic, with its makers undoubtedly realizing that you can't be a mainstream admirer of Assange for all the powerful enemies he's made.

So it takes him down not on politics, but on character.

Oh, there's a political element, too, with the assertion of great harm from the massive document dump of 2010 enabled by Private First Class Bradley Manning, an assertion that goes far beyond the assessment of that noted anti-American radical, former Republican Defense Secretary and CIA Director Robert Gates. Some of this gets played out on-screen in a subplot involving some of my favorite actors -- Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, and Alexander Siddig -- about harm to revealed sources. The problem is that that storyline is fiction.

But that all seems a bit half-hearted, in a film that tries hard to establish a pulsing, future-oriented style without actually succeeding at it. What is not half-hearted is the character takedown, based on the perceptions of Assange's real life former second, Daniel Dormscheidt-Berg, who wrote the book this movie is based on. He's played by the exceptional German actor Daniel Bruhl, who was simply outstanding as the Austrian race driver Niki Lauda in Rush, one of my favorite movies of recent years.

Here he has a less interesting character to play, that of the somewhat cliched hero worshiping acolyte-turned-disillusioned-enemy, and a script that doesn't come close to equalling Peter Morgan's stunning rendition of a fabulous rivalry in the '70s racing scene in Rush. But he's quite good.

Perhaps he's right about Assange as a personality, too. I don't know.

Assange struck me from the beginning as a character in a William Gibson novel, someone who if he did not exist would have to be invented in bringing out the contradictions of an emerging order and being a flavorful character while doing it.

Is Assange the cold, megalomaniacal, manipulator and exploiter of women he's so often accused of being? Whether he is or not, it's undeniable that it serves the interests of his enemies that he be perceived and portrayed that way. It was intriguing that, after, ah, haha, punishing Russian President Vladimir Putin by canceling his mini-summit following Putin's grant of asylum to the Wikileaks staffer-accompanied Edward Snowden, President Barack Obama chose to reward Sweden with his pre-G20 summit visiting time. It's Sweden, which has active extradition to the US, which is after Assange on somewhat murky sex charges.

If I were in the government, I'd undoubtedly be very perturbed with the somewhat aloof Aussie. As it is, I think he engaged in the equivalent of childish rock throwing at picture windows by so indiscriminately releasing classified reports which contained no evidence of actual wrongdoing but did serve to embarrass the US and make relations with certain countries and personalities all the more difficult.

I think he also releases information that raises deep questions about what we are doing and where things are headed in the future. And as a journalist and generally curious sort of person, I always like having more information.

There is no clever segue to the latest film with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yes, there are some political trappings. In this one, the two '80s superstars Stallone, who plays the ostensible lead, and Schwarzenegger, the off-lead who steals the picture, are fighting against America's secret prison system, Blackwater, and blacker elements of the CIA, finding common cause with Arabs and Muslims headed by the guy whose capture of Tony Stark in the first Iron Man movie gave rise to the famous powered suit. Also a notable terrorist in 24, the actor who in reality is Californian and UC Berkeley grad Faran Tahir also played the doomed heroic captain at the beginning of the Star Trek reboot who turned over command to Thor, er, Captain Kirk's dad, who thereupon met his heroic fate while saving the lives of his just-born son, just-widowed wife, and 800 of his Starfleet colleagues.

But back to this film.

It's entertaining and has some good moments, including a long-awaited throwdown between Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Even if the big twist about the location of the secret supermax prison was lifted right out of a season finale of 24.

But it's not a hit and fell at the low end of expectations with $10 million domestic box office (six times that of The Fifth Estate) in an opening weekend in which Gravity -- the visually brilliant astronauts flick with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney -- takes in three times that much in its third weekend.

What's up? Well, I think there's a very limited American market for a basic genre action film. And while Escape Plan is a little cleverer than that, the totally generic title and most of the advertising make it sound like that.

Aside from The Expendables series, which may actually hurt other such action films by providing fans with one lollapalooza source of '80s dino action, the films have been flat.

This has not been good for Schwarzenegger in his post-governorship period.

In retrospect, Schwarzenegger began his post-governorship in very star-crossed fashion. Although he had raised his job approval rating from 22 percent in summer 2010 to 32 percent by that December, and was being succeeded by a friendly Democrat in fellow iconoclast Jerry Brown, his decided rising trend was about to hit a big set of reversals.

First, with only a few aware he would do it, he reduced the sentence of the son of a Democratic political ally who'd taken part in a fight which left one young man dead. Reduced the sentence, not eliminated it, still leaving him with many years behind bars.

But the commutation was poorly structured and announced, leading to a firestorm of controversy. Boom. More trouble followed with wife Maria Shriver verifying that Schwarzenegger had fathered a child, who of course looks like him, with a member of their household staff. This personal drama played out for a few months before being leaked to the press. Boom again. Well, add a few booms to that one.

Which actually had a huge impact on Schwarzenegger's acting career. For the picture he had chosen to start with hit far too close to home. Cry Macho, based on the N. Richard Nash novel, which I read, had a great role for Schwarzenegger as a down at the heels former champion horse trainer (in the novel a rodeo rider) reduced to doing the bidding of a mega-rich Wall Street jerk. Who decided to send Arnold down to Mexico to retrieve his son from his runaway wife. In the course of it, down in Mexico, he develops fatherly feelings for the boy and ... Well, it was clearly far too on the nose.

Which left Schwarzenegger with a sequence of three seeming throwback action movies in a row. Only one of which, the overly jokey Expendables 2, was a hit.

It's not until next April that we'll see Schwarzenegger in a film which is clearly a departure from the more generic a la Commando parts of his past action star career. That is when he heads an impressive ensemble cast in David Ayers' Sabotage, in which an elite DEA team headed by Schwarzenegger turns corrupt. And then things get worse.

Playing a guy who is clearly not a hero is a good idea for Schwarzenegger. Playing a good guy who is clearly authoritative and capable but not an action hero per se, as John Wayne did later in his superstar career in such films as In Harm's Way and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (and also doesn't talk about how old he is), is also a good idea.

He might even play someone who's a very fit, age-appropriate techno-savvy leader type, been there and done that and knows which end is up and is willing to speak plainly about it. Hey, it's a thought.

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