Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Fifth Estate

Bill Condon's bio-pic about Julian Assange, The Fifth Estate (2014), is a film about computers and hacking made by someone who seems to know nothing at all about computers.  The entire film takes place in garishly lit caverns or glass chambers layered with gleaming reflective surfaces -- it's as if the set designers and lighting personnel constructed the movie to look like Tron, the action seems to be taking place within some sort of dim cyberspace where picturesque, but useless, arrays of data twinkle like stars in the dark electronic heavens.  At key points in the film, characters gaze at laptops that display massive columns of blinking numbers -- I must say that my computer screen has never shown me a luminous void congested with matrices of shifting green numbers.  But this seems to be how Condon imagines a computer and monitor screen, a curiously retro notion that imparts to the film the character of a fifties or sixties' scifi movie -- it's like Lost in Space or something.  The movie has no real substance and so the set decoration has to carry the film's meaning -- something about radical modernity associated with hacking government sites and whistleblowing, a theme implicit in the movie's title, the questionable premise that "citizen-journalists" like Julian Assange represent something wholly new under the sun, a so-called "fifth estate" that has superseded the "fourth estate" of conventional print media.  This pictorial theme, emphasized by a bravura title sequence tracking human dissemination of data from cave painting through the Gutenberg press to TV and, finally, computers is constantly undercut by the fact that everyone refers to the Pentagon Papers and Watergate to define Assange's project.  Benedict Cumberbatch gives a pseudo-Sherlock Holmes performance, all autistic tantrums and super-smart patter, but the character never comes into focus and remains enigmatic.  There is a back-story suggesting that Assange is the damaged product of some kind of Australian cult that required its adherents to dye their hair white, but this premise isn't dramatized and merely affords the basis for a couple of picturesque shots of small children cowering by a big bonfire.  The movie doesn't know whether to take a Fox News or MSNBC attitude toward Assange and, so, it splits the difference and tries to have it both ways:  Assange is both a heroic zealot for transparency in government as well as a reckless half-crazed egotist whose disclosures put innocent people at risk.  A climax at the Libyan border is contrived to dramatize the hazards that Assange created for our spies in Tripoli -- but spying, like working in the oil patch in North Dakota, is inherently hazardous work and it's unbecoming for the film to ask us to shed tears for people who have voluntarily put themselves in harm's way by betraying their country.  Aware of this problem, Condon gives the Tripoli spy a wife and a new baby -- but it's phony, just an attempt to manipulate our sympathies.  Much of the movie makes no sense at all -- the hero, a naïve German who was Assange's partner, sees the light, adopts a Fox News approach to Assange's journalism, and goes on a rampage in the imaginary Wikileaks newsroom, a set right out of Tron: an infinite office extending to the horizon and populated, as in Being John Malkovich, by hundreds of clones of the white-haired Assange.  The German wrecks the whole virtual newsroom resulting in lots of blinking and twitching on Assange's lap top, this, in turn, triggering tears and a look of total desolation on Cumberbatch's face.  But a title occurring about 30 seconds later tells us that Assange leaked the entire corpus of the American diplomatic cables, over 250,000 pages of them, without redacting anything -- so much for the German's virtual destruction of Assange's virtual newsroom; I guess in the virtual world, virtual acts are without consequence.  This is the kind of showy movie that globe-trots and features realistic glimpses of exotic places but which also shows us Germans speaking accented English to one another in the privacy of their own bedrooms. There's no plot to speak of -- the German guy has to sacrifice his cute and sexy girlfriend for his doomed bromance with Assange, but this is all very conventional -- the clichés concealed beneath the bizarre visual effects and pointlessly whirling camera.  In this virtual universe, everything seems strangely unreal -- do American agents at the Pentagon or Department of State really sit down together like bad guys in a James Bond movie to toast their nefarious schemes with big tumblers of whisky or cognac?  And would the US government really entrust matters of life and death, the greatest and most consequential secrets of state, to a 22 year old, mentally unstable, transgender low-ranking subaltern in military service?  Really?  A government that protects its secrets in that way deserves to lose them. 

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