One of the keenest pleasures of watching David Fincher’s film The Social Network, scripted by Aaron Sorkin, came from realising how badly the whole enterprise could have turned out and feeling grateful that it ended up being something close to a masterpiece. A pair of old-media dudes cocking a snook at this Facebook tomfoolery—how enlightening or entertaining could that be? Well, now we know the answer: infinitely. Part of that film’s brilliance lies in its detachment: Fincher and Sorkin are palpably suspicious of our voluntary surrender to the gods of social networking, but they still recognise that at its heart the story is one which rests on timeless themes (ambition, betrayal, conformity, loneliness). Most of my pre-release fears surrounding The Social Network have now been helpfully embodied in The Fifth Estate, Bill Condon’s film about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. I come not to review the film today but merely to remark on the infinitesimal differences in tone and perspective which can decide a movie’s fate.
That said, I’m not going to take the fifth on The Fifth Estate: I think it’s bogus. The problem is not Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange or Daniel Brühl as his WikiLeaks co-conspirator Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Both work small miracles with the cartoonish characterisation they have been given. (Though Cumberbatch is called upon to give a terrible “Over to you…” straight-to-camera address at the end in a last-ditch attempt to make the film seem amorphous and self-reflexive.)
Whereas The Social Network had a mature, sane outlook on a youthful phenomenon, The Fifth Estate is craven: it’s so superficially thrilled by the unknown potential of the internet that it goes into a spin. Graphics that would have been rejected as too absurd by The Day Today are thrown in alongside dubious visualisations of WikiLeaks’ online world—an unending office floor like the one in The Apartment, only with the sky where the ceiling should be, and an Assange clone seated at every desk. The sensation that someone is trying to explain the internet to you is hard to suppress.
The film’s fogeyish approach to technology probably wouldn’t matter so much if it had grasped the bare bones of drama. The verbal clichés pile up (“We changed the world!” “This is huge” “Welcome to the revolution!”). Motivation and back-story are smuggled into casual conversation with all the elegance of an elephant being sneaked through passport control. Even if the real Assange has a habit of cramming his conversation with one-line biographical anecdotes (“I have a son…” “When I was 13…”), the writer-director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) should know that this doesn’t fly in film—it stops the drama dead while we wait for the significance to pass like a storm cloud.
Condon also betrays a serious lack of faith in his material whenever he sets the cameras whizzing around the characters or cuts frantically between scenes and time-zones. This is the filmmaking style of a director who suddenly realises that most of his dramatic high-points involve men staring at laptop screens. While it may be unfair to use The Social Network as a stick with which to beat The Fifth Estate, this is another area in which Fincher and Sorkin excelled: rather than getting hung up on the computer-screen problem, they simply circumnavigated it for the most part and coaxed the drama out into the physical. If we felt any claustrophobia from that movie, it was entirely intentional. With the exception of some taut scenes involving Laura Linney (she serves much the same acerbic function that Joan Allen did in the Bourne series), The Fifth Estate feels desk-bound even when its characters are whizzing across the world, or glancing over their shoulders at enemy agents.
In some of the scenes set in the Guardian offices, Dan Stevens turns up as the paper’s former assistant editor, Ian Katz, who recently decamped to the BBC’s Newsnight. What he said rather ungallantly last month about one of his show’s guests, Labour MP Rachel Reeves, goes double for The Fifth Estate: it’s boring snoring.
The Fifth Estate opens 11 October.