Friday, 8 November 2013

Film Roundup: Real life dramas (The Fifth Estate, Captain Phillips)

Wow, been a while since one of these huh? Blame the hectic university lifestyle.

This week, there has been two films that deviate from a typical biopic and attempt to turn the true stories into thrillers. The Fifth Estate clearly owes a huge debt to The Social Network, which successfully made the backroom in-fighting about the creation of Facebook one of the most gripping films of the year. The visual style of The Fifth Estate has clearly been influenced by it but is nonetheless stunning. The visualisations of the workings of the Internet are jawdropping. But is this a case of style over substance? You would hope not considering the story at the heart of the film - the founding of Wikileaks, which shook up the world in a way that is still affecting us now.

The first half of the film focuses on Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch, or as Jeremy Jahns brilliantly describes him 'Cumberbleach') founding Wikileaks and gradually building up its reputation with the help of Daniel Schmitt (Daniel Bruhl).* As you'd expect Cumberbatch is extraordinary, capturing the authentic vocal inflections and dominating presence that Assange appears to have. Bruhl is less captivating but then this isn't a particular surprise. For one, he is by far the least interesting character and, not surprisingly, the one we are more familiar with. This means that the relationship they have in the film comes across much like Nick Carraway and Gatsby in The Great Gatsby; the central character, fascinated by an elusive and uncommunicative figure, finds himself over his head when involved in the unusual events the mysterious figure is involved in.

Unfortunately, this isn't as good as it sounds. Great as Cumberbatch is, we never get a foothold of his character. This is not necessarily a problem except that as soon as the major events occur in the second half of the film, we are expected to understand his character enough to feel the dramatic importance of the revelations. As such, the film seems to be in two minds about Assange - whether to treat him as an elusive, Gatsby-like figure, or to make him a fully rounded character to lock heads with Schmitt over important decisions. The very final scenes then go on a completely different track altogether. Perhaps all this shows how difficult Assange is to place as a character. This would be fine in a straight biopic but it is just frustrating within the drama the filmmakers appear to be trying to make, and to be honest, I'm not even that sure what type of film they're trying to make now I'm trying to write about it.

This indecision also affects Schmitt. The films attempt to go into thriller territory in the latter half relies upon him selling the threat. However, the character is so constantly confused and in the dark about everything, we end up feeling as clueless as he does. Despite Bruhl's best efforts, the character does not leave a lasting impression. However, at least he isn't as poorly treated as Alicia Vikander is playing Schmitt's girlfriend, Anke Domscheit. I had to look up her character name so unimpressionable was her character. In fact, I'm not 100% sure I've got the right character. She is set up to be Schmitt's moral conscience, someone to remind him how his work is affecting the world. But in the film, she exists to do specific acts: shout at Schmitt, be angry at Assange, mope occasionally, and have sex with Schmitt. What an absolute waste of a character. Not many people seem to be talking about the sexual politics of this film, but I'll just say that when the prominent female character spends most of her scenes kissing the protagonist and being abandoned by him post-sex, it becomes an unfortunately major problem.

Thankfully, Captain Phillips does not leave such a disappointing taste afterwards. It just leaves you in awe and shock. A much preferable reaction I'm sure we'd all agree. Marine Captain Richard Phillips is undergoing a typical cargo mission when he strays too close to pirate territory and finds his ship under threat. I'll avoid any more plot details because frankly, it's unnecessary to go into it. The film is a thriller, hence some people may be able to see where it is going even if they didn't know the true story. I have to say I was always on tenterhooks. While a part of me was thinking, "It'll be fine. It's a thriller with Tom Hanks. Everything will turn out alright", the film constantly made my stomach plunge as Phillips is put to an ever increasingly desperate situation. By the time the credits came up, I needed a deep breath.

So clearly, the film is an excellent thriller. But as Paul Greengrass did so well in United 93 (another film which is difficult to endure but oh so rewarding), the thriller aspects are given more heft by fantastic drama. The two captains oppose, reflect and feed into each other. Everyone is saying how fabulous Tom Hanks and I'm not going to deny that. He is excellent and plays a role as I have never seen him before. So vulnerable, so flawed. But he is matched and at times outstaged by the truly excellent Barkhad Abdi as the pirate captain. In fact, the whole crew is superb, and are so believable and well rounded that a part of me wanted them to, not necessarily succeed, but come out all right.

While both films boast excellent performances throughout the entire cast, I felt that Captain Phillips brought me in confidently and somewhat brusquely into the situation. Not for one moment did I have absolute certainty of what would happen next or even what I could have done in that situation. It was engaging and involving in the way The Fifth Estate wasn't with all its bombasity and self-importance. Greengrass knew exactly what he was doing; I feel Bill Condon had more of a struggle with his material, which is understandable. A hijacking film seems easier to pull off as a drama then the Wikileaks scandal. But that would be too dismissive of Captain Phillips, which is truly an excellent film and everyone should go see.
If you need a Dumb Person's Guide to Wikileaks, as I did, The Fith Estate serves fine. It is a perfectly efficient film but not a particularly memorable one.

*I would just like to note that obviously the intricate details about the founding and running of Wikileaks is constantly debated. I am summarising the story of the film rather than trying to explain the reality, of which I know little of, as I'm about to explain...