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

BBC/ ITV Cradle Ltd/Matt Squire
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Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

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 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses