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

GETTY
Show Hide image

Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser