How accurate is the newest WikiLeaks story?

Geeks versus the government.

The Fifth Estate (15)
dir: Bill Condon

Let’s get the personal bit out of the way. How did Peter Capaldi do?

Any editor about to be in a Hollywood movie really wants something along the lines of Jason Robards. Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post may have made the tough calls over Watergate, but most of us think of him as Robards portrayed him in All the President’s Men – feet on desk, tie at half mast, barking gravelly instructions through a halfsmoked fag at Woodward and Bernstein. Or Redford and Hoffman, as we indelibly remember them.

No Robards for me, but Capaldi, who can do anything from demented, foul-mouthed Scottish spin doctors to all-knowing, allseeing time lords. An early version of the script did open with the Guardian editor drawling the following line: “Goddam impatient American assholes.” Which owed little to my Kentish Town roots, but did have a satisfyingly Robards, Martini-soaked growl about it. But the line got cut.

Instead, The Fifth Estate begins with Capaldi’s Rusbridger swearing at the former executive editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller. “Thanks very much for not giving a shit.” This did make me sit up and take notice. Although I never said any such thing, it suggested that Malcolm Tucker was about to be let loose on the Guardian newsroom.

But it doesn’t happen. Capaldi is rather understated and sotto voce. He could come and edit the Guardian any time. Dan Stevens is a very dashing deputy editor Ian Katz, though a touch colourless. My poor old colleague David Leigh – who had much to do with getting the WikiLeaks stories into publishable shape – is written out of the script altogether. And the heroic reporter Nick Davies emerges, via David Thewlis, as a bit more moth-eaten and cynical than he is in real life. Though the beaten-up leather jacket is spot on.

But the clue is in the title. This film is not really about a newspaper: it’s about the fifth estate – the rather more amorphous form of media that has not replaced newspapers (and I think won’t), but is nonetheless revolutionary, disruptive and disturbing. In good and bad ways. So, although the film begins and ends in the Guardian’s offices, the heart of it is really a buddy movie about Julian Assange and his collaborator on WikiLeaks Daniel Domscheit-Berg.

The film traces the evolution of WikiLeaks from its reasonably anonymous start, causing headaches to assorted banks, business and governments, to the moment it burst on to the global stage with the Iraq war logs and cables leaked by Chelsea Manning, published in partnership with the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel.

The two geeks bond. Berg initially has a kind of sweet puppy love for the whitehaired wizard of hacking. But, in time, the curtain is drawn back on Assange’s wizardry. The army of volunteers he keeps boasting about doesn’t actually exist. When it comes to minimising harm from the documents about to be released there is no one to do it. The geeks fall out.

If you’re not a geek, some of this may be a little dry and even hard to follow, but the film has two things at the heart of it which make it work – or did for me. One is the performance of Benedict Cumberbatch, who is stunning as Assange. The voice and the slightly jerky, stiff, awkward demeanour are just right. More importantly, he captures the kaleidoscopic nature of Assange’s make-up, as most people experience it: brilliant, difficult, rhetorical, paranoid, inspiring, odd, cold, warm, solipsistic, manipulative, strategic, scheming, devious, visionary, dismissive, impulsive, deliberate . . .

The film’s other strength is that it does seek to do justice to the revolution implied in its title. Josh Singer’s script cleverly (if at times earnestly) grapples with the nature of the disruption at the heart of WikiLeaks: the mayhem being caused to media, business, intelligence, government, banking, diplomacy and plain old tyranny.

There’s a well-acted, if speculative, subplot within the US state department involving Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci. There’s a made-up bit about extracting a possibly compromised source in Libya. The Capaldi/ Rusbridger character has to suffer a lecture from Thewlis/Davies about “churnalism” as C/R opts for Diana over the US primaries. Most of this is make-believe.

But the bigger picture is true and important. Manning and Assange – and Berg – started something hugely significant. The part played by the not-much-celebrated-thesedays fourth estate was also vital. WikiLeaks did something historic, frustrated in part, as the film suggests, by the characters of those involved. Yet the idea won’t go away. Ryan Gosling as Edward Snowden?

Alan Rusbridger is the editor of the Guardian

A blog in the fight: Daniel Bruhl and Benedict Cumberbatch as Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Julian Assange, the driving force behind WikiLeaks. Image: www.entertainmentone.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit