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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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