Toward the end of this dithering pseudo-investigation of WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange, our true protagonist Daniel (played dully by the usually brilliant Daniel Brühl) asks Guardian editor Nick Davies (David Thewlis) where they ought to begin to further usher in this media revolution, this whistle-blowing Internet. “At the beginning,” replies Davies. “Every good story begins at the beginning.” This is the most compelling way we know that no real journalist took part in the production of this preachy, unresolved film. Most writers know that most great stories begin in the humanizing middle, from The Odyssey to In Cold Blood. Bill (Gods and Monsters, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn) Condon pretentiously begins his film about Julian Assange’s disruptions of a Swiss bank, an African election, and the American diplomatic and military establishments with an overblown historical montage of every news forum from Hammuarabi to Cronkite and beyond, though he begins his narrative in media res, with the first truly troubling encounter Daniel has with Julian. When we eventually revisit the scene, though, Condon doesn’t let anything interesting happen; we haven’t learned much, and the whole mood of the film is simply overwhelming, lost in philosophical issues about technology.
The Fifth Estate also manages to squander a great cast. Iceman Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect as Assange in a twitchy British method performance, but Brühl’s hero-worshipping turned to disaffection seems obvious. The subplot with Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as American intel officers feels like an intrusion from another movie.
Condon’s ultimate problem is his helpless two-sides-to-every-story liberalism, a hand-wringing narrative scheme that can’t make up its own mind, let alone ours. This tale lends itself to moral paradoxes galore, no doubt, but what’s interesting are the people involved. Condon wants to explore the viability of the Internet and thus resorts to whirling graphics and baffling problems. We mere humans are in the middle of that story and far more worried about how it all might end