Clickbait: The Internet in Hollywood Films
Since the days of Napster, Hollywood films have been readily available online. Conversely, the Internet has been seeping into Hollywood films since the Eighties. Twin teenage comedies—WarGames (83) and Real Genius (85)—reveal the sentiment that would characterize future iterations of Hollywood’s Internet imaginary. In WarGames a young Matthew Broderick inadvertently brings NORAD paranoids to the brink of World War III, and Real Genius features Val Kilmer as a Spicoli-esque hacker whose computer skills best those of his superiors. Despite their tidy endings, both films are fueled by concerns over network vulnerability and youthful mastery of adult technologies.
IRL, the narrative machinations of WarGames were quickly absorbed into the arteries of American power. Ronald Reagan was particularly taken by the film, and reportedly sidetracked a discussion of the MX ballistic missile program by recapping the film to a group of lawmakers. Clips were shown in Congress, where anti-hacking bills introduced that year were designed to shield NORAD and other government networks from intrusion. Among those was the Federal Computer Systems Protection Act of 1983, which has recently been used to try Chelsea Manning and bring charges against Edward Snowden.
If 1983 was a milestone in the interplay between Hollywood depiction and government policy, 1995 solidified Hollywood’s interest in the Internet and its subcultures as a subject. Movies like Hackers (95), Johnny Mnemonic (95), and The Net (95) were an essential component of cyberpunk’s emergence into mainstream media. The headliners of Hackers couldn’t be further from the norms of bourgeois conduct. Caught in between the holes and safety pins of punk and the sleek look of The Matrix (99), a young Angelina Jolie sports a pixie cut and a wetsuit top beside Matthew Lillard’s long braids and tiny sunglasses. To the movies, these were kids who could do anything and didn’t care, granted power by their mastery over the Internet’s pure potential. Most important, perhaps, is that these are films in which secure information is code for control: controlling power, controlling capital, and controlling populations.
Johnny Mnemonic, the only film directed by the visual artist and musician Robert Longo, offers a vision of the future in which the protection of information has evolved into a high-stakes industry. Instead of a carefree hacker, Johnny (Keanu Reeves) is a professional courier who carries valuable, secret information in his mind. Longo and cyberpunk author William Gibson planned a small film with a budget of $1.5 million, but Sony was so confident the film would be a zeitgeisty success that they upgraded it to being a $26 million tent pole.
A 1995 article from the Los Angeles Times about the film’s production shows the exuberance that surrounded corporate uses of the Internet in the Nineties. Sid Ganis, then president of marketing at Sony, exclaimed: “We realized that not only can we make a movie about the Internet, we can use the Internet to sell our movie.” Another anonymous executive added: “We see the Internet as turbo-charged word-of-mouth. Instead of one person telling another person something good is happening, it's one person telling millions!” As if presaging the challenges the Internet would offer to traditional distribution models, Mnemonic was not a financial success for the studio.
In The Net, Sandra Bullock plays a pizza-munching computer systems analyst who knows too much. She is terrified as she explains to her sole ally (an oddly cast Dennis Miller) that her faceless attackers have accessed all of her personal information. They know her favorite foods, movies, address, brand of cigarettes—and they figured all this out before the existence of online profiles hosted by a corporate data-mining entity. The Social Network (10) is the founding myth of that entity, in which youth acquires an acceptable role vis-à-vis the net: entrepreneur. (Although the hackers from Hackers work just as hard as Mark Zuckerberg and his team of coders, they don’t cash in at the end.)
The Social Network
Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate has a clear model in The Social Network with its portrayal of a ruthless computer whiz whose purge record rivals that of Mao Zedong or André Breton. But in contrast to the socially awkward, desperate savant with class issues at the center of The Social Network, Assange’s desires—for governmental and institutional transparency, as part of some grander vision of social justice—cannot be so easily sublimated by the Hollywood screenplay.
A highly fictionalized rendering of the events surrounding Wikileaks’ posting of a U.S. Army Apache helicopter attack video, The Fifth Estate imagines Julian Assange as the hacker who refused to grow up. He’s a character straight out of Hackers, loosed on political power structures, and the film follows his right-hand man Daniel Berg (blankly played by Daniel Brühl) as he contends with his strange behavior. Assange insults Berg’s parents, eats hummus with his fingers, is rabidly paranoid, dances to techno, and directs shady glances at women. More than that, he’s untrustworthy, never telling the same story twice. With Berg functioning as an avatar for the uninitiated, no attempt is made to characterize pseudo-Assange’s behavior as threatening or deviant— he’s just a weirdo.
The Fifth Estate
But that’s not the only moralizing The Fifth Estate engages in. Screenwriter Josh Singer introduces a parallel plot in which two high-level State Department employees contend with the release of the 2010 leaks, one of whom is left jobless at the end of the film. Offered as a consequence of Assange’s actions, the unfolding events at the State Department play out like an extended finger wagging that evokes specters of widespread unemployment. If only our information had been secure, Laura Linney (who plays a high-ranking official) wouldn’t have lost her job.
These sorts of assumptions about information are typically accompanied by their own depictions of data-space, which has been surprisingly consistent through Hollywood’s depictions. Hyperactive, neon, unexpectedly graphical, punctuated by blips and bloops and always scrolling, fast-typed text, the Internet is dangerous, exciting, and cutting-edge. Internet representations have long drawn upon visual clichés about virtual reality, epitomized by Michael Douglas’s virtual excursions in Disclosure (94). These visions imagine the Internet as a space you enter rather than interface with. The Fifth Estate also visualizes these networks as an endless office with a floor of sand and twinkling stars suspended above fluorescent lights. The Internet—the new workshop of the world—comes through in this image with equal parts unexpected clarity and regrettable heavy-handedness.
The Fifth Estate
The Fifth Estate positions itself more as a film about journalism than about the Internet. In a sense, the Internet has been a destructive force for print journalism institutions as well as Hollywood, undermining traditional profit models. But both have struggled to make peace with or even capitalize from the Internet. This film could be seen as a record of this uneasy truce, in which the Internet is an unpredictable force: Assange runs wild against the advice or interests of conglomerates. Unlike the wide-eyed hero of WarGames, he doesn’t want to put the genie back in the bottle. Towards the end of the film, he wears a T-shirt with the logo of the Pirate Bay. The detail seals his fate as a kind of Hollywood baddie we can all identify with: the kind who would torrent The Fifth Estate.