As “The Fifth Estate” arrives in theaters, all focus has been placed upon what it has to say about Julian Assange’s use of the Internet to bring about a new era of the Information Age. Like so many biopics it may be judged entirely on how faithfully it replicates a Wikipedia page, especially as Wikileaks itself has launched a proactive campaign to discredit the film, including its leak of the film’s script complete with defensive annotations. On the front of accuracy, “The Fifth Estate” will likely suffer the fate of all narrative Hollywood features, of being an oversimplification that makes the necessary sacrifice of honesty for the sake of story.
Of far more interest, to this writer, at least, is the failure of the dramatization itself, chiefly the film’s attempts to weld classical dramatic technique with the instant, ever-shifting nature of the Internet. Various means of CGI-aided effects—such as lines of code crawling over characters’ faces as they type‚ in what The A.V. Club’s Ben Keningsberg describes as the film’s “woeful attempts to make chatrooms “‘cinematic.’” Even the script treats something like an impending upload with the same breathlessness and gravity typically afforded to a ticking bomb timer. Even the directions have an unfortunate comic element to them, with every page refresh underlined with an instructed close-up on a finger holding down the shift key.
To single out “The Fifth Estate” for a ludicrous aestheticization of Internet drama, though, is to ignore Hollywood’s broader difficulties in adapting for the new realities of digital information. It has become a cliché to say that so-and-so aspect of a classic thriller—be it getting lost, being rooted to a landline waiting for a call, or whatnot—would be impossible in the modern age, with smartphones, GPS and instant access to information. It has quickly become apparent that so many contemporary dramas vividly illustrate this pithy point, and that Hollywood is making films incorporating technology that behave as if it did not exist.
Generally speaking, this manifests in mostly minor ways, displays of fuddy-duddyness that suggest some writers in Hollywood use a computer only to load Final Draft. “The Fifth Estate” offers its own goofs: as Jason Gorber pointed out for Twitch, characters in “The Fifth Estate” discuss modern, system-intensive software while “sitting in front of Dell machines, some running Windows XP.” In “Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps,” Carey Mulligan’s blogger prints out her posts to read, something no one who does not receive mail from AARP has ever done. Brian De Palma’s “Passion” elevates a willful misunderstanding of the Internet into high comedy, the director’s own penchant for ludicrous exaggeration affecting a scene in which Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace’s ad executive boss raves that Rapace’s deliberately leaked ad, a modestly titillating thing that would have seemed coy on European television 30 years ago, has racked up 10 million views in five hours. As is so often the case with De Palma, it is not entirely clear whether or not this is a knowing joke, but at least “Passion” operates on its own wavelength where such a detail is truly the least strange and outlandish aspect of the film.
And even if the latter is just a cluelessly inflated tidbit, focusing too intently on any of these insignificant mistakes threatens to send one off into the perilous realm of “What x gets wrong” that is the very death of film analysis. Instead, it is worth looking at such small errors to see how they snowball into a larger clash between old dramatic sensibilities and a socio-technological form that shakes up the actions and timelines of those old structures. Writing about the 2009 film version of “State of Play”, Roger Ebert saw the possibility for newspaper movies to outlive actual newspapers, if only because, “Shouting ‘stop the presses!’ is ever so much more exciting than shouting ‘stop the upload!’” But that is a regression, a refusal to address new realities because they do not fit snugly into existing models. “Passion’s” amusingly hyperventilating proclamations about viral success may be a tossed-off convenience for De Palma’s larger purposes, but they are indicative of an awkward, half-understood approach to web culture that attempts to build tactile character drama around a fundamentally ephemeral series of mini-phenomena.
In some ways, this is best exhibited in the most well-received film about the growth of digital social life, “The Social Network.” It too employs the same mouth-agape reporting of site hits that “Passion” features, with Mark Zuckerberg announcing that his casually coded misogynistic site garnered 22,000 hits in one note, a fact said in the tone of voice of Raul Julia’s “For me, it was Tuesday” speech from “Street Fighter.” Elsewhere, the script betrays a need to make it fit the parameters of screenwriting, always reducing Facebook’s accomplishments to a numbers game, be it the number of users, the number of campuses who adopt it, its estimated value. The film ultimately makes a strength of this, by suggesting that the revolution Facebook is meant to embody merely perpetuates the same system with a different, more peach-fuzz-covered face, but it nevertheless shows even a good film struggling to adapt to the actual, social impact of such platforms.
But that’s nothing compared to some of the holier-than-thou moral judgments passed on the current generation in contemporary Hollywood films. Perhaps no Hollywood film embodies this like a tawdry throwaway by the name of “Untraceable.” Opening with the live-streamed torture of a kitten before moving on to human murders predicated on a convoluted link between page views and the speed of death, “Untraceable” ticks off just about all the lazy directorial and writing decisions one can utilize in dramatizing the Internet: ominous close-ups on chat windows play up id-freeing anonymity; an overcompensation for the fast-paced nature of digital interaction that sees the FBI discover, expose and issue a warrant for a hacker in a three-minute span of time; and filling every nook and cranny with absurd jargon meant to impart a sense of coding bona fides. (And truly, nowhere else can you hear Diane Lane, or any human being, say in a tone of despair and horror, ”He’s accessing these machines so quickly he’s GOT to be running his own botnet!”) But most infuriating is the film’s hypocritical message, which argues that the Web turns us back into the Roman mob ogling at death even as the film indulges in third-rate torture porn aesthetics that remind the viewer who has really been supplying culture’s death fantasies for years.
To see such films is to see, clearly and repugnantly, how staid Hollywood can be, and how easy cynicism has provided a safe fallback from the imperative to push one’s form and content forward to reflect a technologically altered world. Thankfully, some films are attempting to actually grapple with the implications of life lived at least partially online, most of them on the margins of American film. Joe Swanberg’s “LOL” strikes an ambivalent tone in depicting the manner in which physical interaction gives way to online communication, honestly appraising the capacity for total seclusion, as in the case of a man who forgoes actual relationships to watch porn, as well as true community, epitomized by scenes in which video chats give way to spontaneous musical collaborations.
Abel Ferrara, the living soul of New York’s dangerous, pre-Giuliani years and the last person one would expect to know or care about the Internet, includes a moving scene in his apocalyptic “4:44” in which a delivery boy uses Skype to call home to Vietnam, finding in his goodbye chat as much humanity as an in-person exchange. On the mainstream front, David Fincher’s follow-up to “The Social Network,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” expands on its predecessor’s strengths and uses the complex editing patterns to create a tension between the instantaneous nature of Internet data-gathering and the physical, cognitive process of sifting through that information to craft a narrative. More than any recent American work, Fincher’s latest makes the still-emerging harmony of physical and digital reality central to its narrative, and one can only hope that instead of tying clichéd rise-and-fall biopic stories to such a vast, untapped subject, more films look to stretch and reconfigure overused dramatic forms to explore it.
"The Fifth Estate" opens in theaters on Friday, October 18th.