The Fifth Estate: WikiLeaks at its worst

Compared with <em>The Social Network, The Fifth Estate</em> is craven and cartoonish.

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.

Benedict Cumberbatch arrives at 'The Fifth Estate' premiere during the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Image: Getty

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.

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Has this physicist found the key to reality?

Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. So what to make of Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli?

Albert Einstein knew the truth. “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” However good we are at maths – or theoretical physics – our efforts to apply it to the real world are always going to mislead. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that reality is not what it seems – even when, like the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, you’ve done the maths.

It is a lesson we could certainly learn from the history of science. Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. With the invention of the telescope, for instance, we found new structures in space; Jupiter’s moons and sunspots were just the beginning. The microscope took us the other way and showed us the fine structure of the biological world – creatures that looked uninteresting to the naked eye turned out to be intricate and delicate, with scales and hooks and other minute features. We also once thought that the atom lacked structure; today’s technology, such as the particle colliders at the Cern research centre in Geneva and Fermilab in the United States, have allowed us to prove just how wrong that idea was. At every technological turn, we have redefined the nature of reality.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the technology to take the next step. The present challenge to physicists seeking to discover how things really are is to investigate our environment on a scale known as the “Planck length”. Rovelli tries to convey just how small this is. Imagine, he says, a walnut magnified until it is the size of the universe. If we were to magnify the Planck length by that much, we still couldn’t see it. “Even after having been enormously magnified thus, it would still be a million times smaller than the actual walnut shell was before magnification,” he tells us.

We simply cannot probe the universe at these scales using current methods, because it would require a particle accelerator the size of a small galaxy. So – for now, at least – our search for the nature of reality is in the hands of the mathematicians and theorists. And, as Einstein would tell us, that is far from ideal.

That is also doubly true when theoretical physicists are working with two highly successful, but entirely incompatible, theories of how the universe works. The first is general relativity, developed by Einstein over 100 years ago. This describes the universe on cosmic scales, and utterly undermines our intuition. Rovelli describes Einstein’s work as providing “a phantasmagorical succession of predictions that resemble the delirious ravings of a madman but which have all turned out to be true”.

In relativity, time is a mischievous sprite: there is no such thing as a universe-wide “now”, and movement through space makes once-reliable measures such as length and time intervals stretch and squeeze like putty in Einstein’s hands. Space and time are no longer the plain stage on which our lives play out: they are curved, with a geometry that depends on the mass and energy in any particular region. Worse, this curvature determines our movements. Falling because of gravity is in fact falling because of curves in space and time. Gravity is not so much a force as a geometric state of the universe.

The other troublesome theory is quantum mechanics, which describes the subatomic world. It, too, is a century old, and it has proved just as disorienting as relativity. As Rovelli puts it, quantum mechanics “reveals to us that, the more we look at the detail of the world, the less constant it is. The world is not made up of tiny pebbles, it is a world of vibrations, a continuous fluctuation, a microscopic swarming of fleeting micro-events.”

But here is the most disturbing point. Both of these theories are right, in the sense that their predictions have been borne out in countless experiments. And both must be wrong, too. We know that because they contradict one another, and because each fails to take the other into account when trying to explain how the universe works. “The two pillars of 20th-century physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics – could not be more different from each other,” Rovelli writes. “A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning, and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon, might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or that they haven’t talked to each other for at least a century.”

Physicists are aware of the embarrassment here. Hence the effort to unite relativity and quantum mechanics in a theory of “quantum gravity” that describes reality at the Planck scale. It is a daunting task that was the undoing of both Einstein and his quantum counterpart Erwin Schrödinger. The two men spent the last years of their working lives trying to solve this problem, but failed to make any headway. Today’s physicists have some new ideas and mathematical intuitions, but they may also be heading towards a dead end. Not that we’ll find out for sure any time soon. If the history of science offers us a second lesson, it is that scientific progress is unbearably slow.

In the first third of his book, Rovelli presents a fascinating dissection of the history of our search for reality. The mathematical cosmology of Ptolemy, in which the Earth stood at the centre of the universe and the other heavenly bodies revolved around it, ruled for a thousand years. It was unfairly deposed: the calculations based on Copernicus’s sun-centred model “did not work much better than those of Ptolemy; in fact, in the end, they turned out to work less well”, the author observes.

It was the telescope that pushed us forward. Johannes Kepler’s painstaking obser­vations opened the door to the novel laws that accurately and succinctly described the planets’ orbits around the sun. “We are now in 1600,” Rovelli tells his readers, “and for the first time, humanity finds out how to do something better than what was done in Alexandria more than a thousand years earlier.”

Not that his version of history is perfect. “Experimental science begins with Galileo,” Rovelli declares – but there are any number of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance figures who would baulk at that claim. In the 12th century the Islamic scholar al-Khazini published a book full of experiments that he had used to test the theories of mechanics. The man who helped Galileo achieve his first academic position, Guidobaldo del Monte, also carried out many experiments, and possibly taught Galileo the craft.

It’s a small misjudgement. More ­irritating is Rovelli’s dismissal of any path towards quantum gravity but his own, a theory known as “loop quantum gravity”. He spends the last third of the book on explaining this idea, which he considers the “most promising” of all the assaults on the true ­nature of reality. He does not mention that he is in a minority here.

Most physicists pursuing quantum gravity give a different approach – string theory – greater chance of success, or at least of bearing useful fruit. String theory suggests that all the forces and particles in nature are the result of strings of energy vibrating in different ways. It is an unproven (and perhaps unprovable) hypothesis, but its mathematical innovations are nonetheless seeding interesting developments in many different areas of physics.

However, Rovelli is not impressed. He summarily dismisses the whole idea, characterising its objectives as “premature, given
current knowledge”. It’s a somewhat unbecoming attitude, especially when we have just spent so many pages celebrating millennia of ambitious attempts to make sense of the universe. He also strikes a jarring note when he seems to revel in the Large Hadron Collider at Cern having found no evidence for “supersymmetry”, an important scaffold for string theory.

As readers of his bestselling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics will know, Rovelli writes with elegance, clarity and charm. This new book, too, is a joy to read, as well as being an intellectual feast. For all its laudable ambition, however, you and I are unlikely ever to learn the truth about quantum gravity. Future generations of scientists and writers will have the privilege of writing the history of this particular subject. With theory ranging so far ahead of experimental support, neither strings nor loops, nor any of our other attempts to define quantum gravity, are likely to be correct. Reality is far more elusive than it seems.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli. Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre is published by Allen Lane (255pp, £16.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood