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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump