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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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times