Hollywood has been attempting to make sense of computers and their effect on the world for decades. Most of the time, these films entail cartoonish portrayals of tech nerds, making them all out to be skateboard-riding, trenchcoat-wearing hackers who stare into the abyss of their laptop screens (aka "cyberspace") as they look to fight the powers that be. Also, there's usually techno music involved.
But, even in 2013, with our feet now firmly planted in the era of Web 2.0, Hollywood still hasn't learned its lesson. Take, for example, "The Fifth Estate," which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this week. The film tells the true story of Wikileaks -- an organization that publishes classified material from anonymous sources -- and its founder, Julian Assange.
The movie earnestly attempts to tackle the current state of journalism. Is it a watered-down tool used to spout opinion rather than fact? Is it an ever-changing organism struggling to adapt to a connected world? Is it evil? According to "The Fifth Estate," there's no right answer.
Essentially, director Bill Condon and screenwriter Josh Singer make the case that Assange and Wikileaks changed the way news organizations do business after the group released a video of a Baghdad airstrike that had American pilots firing on two Reuters journalists, as well as thousands of classified diplomatic cables of the Afghanistan War (the leaks were provided by Chelsea Manning, formerly Bradley Manning, who was eventually handed a 35-year sentence for aiding the enemy). In the case of the latter, Assange worked with three major news outlets -- the New York Times, the U.K.'s The Guardian, and Germany's Der Spiegel -- to release the information to the public. The incident placed the Wikileaks founder and his cohorts into a new kind of vigilante-journalist group, one that publishes secrets for the greater good while breaking from journalistic standards.
Although a film examining the current state of digital journalism sounds best suited for a niche market, the overarching story of "Fifth Estate" has the makings of a compelling, unique drama: a conflicted man looks to change the world through ethically and morally questionable means. But instead, the movie treads familiar ground by making sweeping generalizations about digital culture that are as simplistic as they are obvious: the Internet is changing everything; everyone is connected; and a handful of folks, armed with laptops, can bring any government to a grinding halt. Unfortunately, these ideas push the film into the realm of silly hacker stereotypes and shallow portrayals. Alas, even in the 21st Century, it's still difficult for Hollywood to talk about the information age like a sophisticated adult.
We all use computers and smartphones every day and have become at least somewhat (if not intimately) aware of their capabilities. But, despite this fact (and with the recent exception of "The Social Network"), filmmakers have largely failed at telling a captivating and realistic account of the effect computers have on our daily lives.
Perhaps it comes down to the simple realization that it's difficult to make a movie about computers that's both entertaining and realistic. What we end up with then are computer-centric films that have a sense of urgency bordering on schizophrenic. On paper, it makes sense. A frenzied pace is what we expect in a new movie about how the Internet, a medium that thrives on immediacy, shapes and molds the way we consume information. But the final product often ends up being an instantly outdated, metaphor- and illustration-heavy portrayal of our digital lives, itself a victim of the Internet's ever-changing state. And it is particularly unfortunate when the victim happens to be a high-profile film like "The Fifth Estate."
Dated '90s computer flicks, such as "Hackers" or "The Net," can be laughed off due to their implausible, popcorn-movie plots. But, since "The Fifth Estate" is rooted in fact, there's a greater need for it to be handled with a masterful attention to the story and its characters, not spectacle -- especially considering the serious, far-reaching political consequences that WikiLeaks' actions yielded.
In 2010, The Atlantic signaled a new era of films that finally looked to tackle our current digital state. "It seems that American movies are finally (belatedly) taking on the subject of Web 2.0, or at least the idea of the Internet as an open-frontier marketplace," wrote Benjamin Mercer, using "The Social Network," "Catfish," and "Middle Men" as examples. But those three are the exceptions, not the rule. For every "Social Network," there's a "Fifth Estate." For every "Middle Men" there's a "Live Free or Die Hard." What moviegoers need right now are more directors who can execute nuanced accounts of the web in the 21st century. We need pioneers who will stand up for story and fight against the silly, flashy special effects that have somehow become a required element of what Hollywood thinks a movie about the digital age should be.
Maybe Julian Assange should try his hand at filmmaking.