The Fifth Estate, a thriller about Julian Assange and his epoch-defining whistle-blower website WikiLeaks, is the most topical film ever to launch the Toronto International Film Festival. If it were ripped any more quickly from the headlines, you’d get paper cuts: This summer, when Edward Snowden was on the run after exposing American and British mass surveillance programs, it was WikiLeaks that helped him make his way to asylum in Russia. Last week, U.S. soldier Chelsea Manning (formerly Pfc. Bradley Manning) was sentenced to 35 years in prison for providing WikiLeaks with its biggest mainstream success: the disclosure of, among other secret documents, a quarter million U.S. diplomatic cables going back more than four decades.
As Scott Feinberg recently pointed out in The Hollywood Reporter, the film is part of a growing trend toward topical features with fast turnaround times: HBO’s Phil Spector, The Bling Ring, Fruitvale Station and the upcoming Tom Hanks vehicle Captain Phillips. In a world where we flatter ourselves that we’re keeping up on events by glancing at a screen crawl, a two-hour drama can provide a deeper context to a real-life story than can Google News or CNN. It allows us not just to surf the news, but to emotionally participate in it.And so, in the renegade spirit of WikiLeaks, I will now break an embargo I agreed to with its studio, Disney, against reviewing an unfinished cut of the movie: The Fifth Estate is not just topical, but good. Director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey, Dreamgirls) and screenwriter Josh Singer (The West Wing) have taken a fearfully complex subject and made it intelligible and compelling. More importantly, The Fifth Estate is a film that’s topical not merely because it’s ripped from the headlines but because it achieves precisely what its headline-making subject achieved: the distillation of an unwieldy mass of information into a linear and useful narrative. Both WikiLeaks and The Fifth Estate know how to tell, and how to sell, a story.
Working from two quickly written books – one by Assange’s one-time lieutenant Daniel Domscheit-Berg; the other from Guardian journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding – and partly funded by Participant Media (a studio that helps finance social-activist movies), the filmmakers have made a thriller about the hot-button issues of personal privacy and public transparency. Amid the screaming headlines and streaming gigabites, The Fifth Estate is also, as Condon put it to me in a telephone interview this week, “almost a love story” between a cyber Robin Hood and his right-hand merry man: Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch, winningly weird) and Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl, adorably ardent), as they expose the secrets of the corrupt and powerful, and compel the mainstream media to play by their rules.
A pivotal sequence in the film depicts journalists from The Guardian and bleary-eyed WikiLeaks staff undertaking the Herculean task of preparing the first batch of cables from which the newsmen would mine their stories. It was an endeavour that involved too much content, too many bottlenecks, and grinding uncertainty over their work’s reception.
The pressing issue of curating stories in an era of data overload applies these days to film as much as it does to journalism: There’s just too much information out there. Consider the 464-page catalogue for the 38th edition of TIFF, covering 288 feature films (and 78 shorts). Is this really any kind of “festival?” It feels more like a convention. No individual can experience more than a fraction of the event during its 11-day running time. Nor is most of what it offers even film, in an age when the dominant medium is high-definition video – a format that’s ready-made for its eventual destination on television, and computer, tablet and telephone screens.
Digital technology means that “films” are cheaper to make than ever. And there’s clearly too much being made. The TIFF selection represents less than 8 per cent of the total submissions to the festival. This year, that gross number was 4,892, up 17 percent from 2012, with Canadian films accounting for 1,042 of those.
Although Hollywood studios have pulled back their output to spend more on blockbusters for the global market, when it comes to movies made for small to medium budgets, we’re in a period of oversupply. Cutting through the clutter, any more, is a far bigger impediment than is a shortage of funding.
When Condon is not busy making movies (most recently the two final episodes of the Twilight series), he works with the Independent Feature Project (IFP) in Los Angeles, a non-profit organization that supports independent films. He knows the problem of oversupply. “There may be 15 films opening in a week,” he says, “and probably five of them that I really want to see.”
As well, he says, IFP members talk a lot about how the Internet audience can drive the kinds of movies that get distributed: “At every level, there has to have some kind of heat. A wonderful story isn’t enough.” Neither were wonderful stories enough to create the WikiLeaks phenomenon. “Assange recognized self-promotion as part of the job,” notes Condon. “He became the face of WikiLeaks.”
Assange, as it turns out, appears in another film at the festival, the documentary InRealLife, in which he denounces Google, even before the Snowden leaks, as a data-collection system that “knows more about you than your mother.” The film, part of TIFF’s Mavericks program, and directed by Britain’s Beeban Kidron (Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason), is about, as Kidron says in a voice-over, how “our children have been outsourced” to the Internet: All those free sites and search engines, she notes, incite us to share our personal tastes and beliefs for the benefit of marketing firms.
Like Condon, Kidron is not just a filmmaker but an advocate for her medium. In 2006, she started a national afterschool cinema organization called Filmclub, through which kids watch classic films and discuss them. There are now 7,000 such clubs across England and Wales, with almost a quarter million kids attending.
“All cultures create their identity in some kind of narrative form,” Kidron has argued in a TED talk. The love of film, she says, has to do with context: Film, as an experience shared in a darkened room with other people, is a medium for communal values, not just a place for leaving a digital trail for marketers to divine. And unlike the random simultaneity of the Internet, a good film curates information, and provides chronology that in turn implies consequence – and so adds meaning to the final product.
Indeed, you can, as Condon points out, head to YouTube and watch the video-documented moments that have been depicted in fictional form in The Fifth Estate: the real Julian Assange doing a wacky dance at an Iceland nightclub, or his being interviewed on Frontline. But those moments aren’t the story of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks; they are data points on a line that an artist has to draw, and then share with an audience.
So there’s some use, then, in a film festival that’s not exactly a festival and is not exactly about film any more. Sharing isn’t merely clicking the thumbs-up sign on your Facebook account in the still of the night. It’s slapping our hands together, surrounded by other people, in a noisy collective gesture we flesh-and-blood humans call applause.