'The Fifth Estate' and the Surge in Ripped-From-the-Headlines Oscar Contenders (Analysis)

Films inspired by recent major news stories -- such as the WikiLeaks-focused "The Fifth Estate," which will open the Toronto International Film Festival in two weeks -- have never numbered more or been turned around as quickly.
"The Fifth Estate"

Bradley Manning was sentenced Wednesday to 35 years in prison for leaking classified U.S. documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. In two weeks, Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate, a DreamWorks film about the rise to international prominence of WikiLeaks, in which the Manning leaks were instrumental, will open the 38th Toronto International Film Festival.

Widely covered news stories have inspired movies since the invention of cinema a little more than a century ago -- filmmakers have always turned to them, if only for a dearth of original ideas. Famous examples include In Cold Blood (1967), an adaptation of Truman Capote's "nonfiction novel" about a 1959 quadruple homicide in Kansas; All the President's Men (1976), which focuses on the Washington Post's coverage of the 1972 Watergate break-in; Dog Day Afternoon (1975), which is based on a 1972 hostage situation; The Insider (1999), about the controversial run-up to and aftermath of a 1995 episode of 60 Minutes; and the list goes on.

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What's different in the 21st century, though, is the frequency with which stories are "ripped from the headlines" -- to borrow a term used in the the promotion of Law & Order, the TV franchise that, at its height, sustained several simultaneous installments thanks to the wealth of real stories from which it could draw inspiration -- and the speed with which they are turned into films.

This year alone, The Fifth Estate is joined by Phil Spector, an HBO TV movie about the run-up to the 2009 sentencing of the eponymous music producer for the murder of his girlfriend; The Bling Ring, an indie film inspired by a 2010 Vanity Fair article about a string of Hollywood burglaries that took place in 2008 and 2009; Fruitvale Station, an indie film inspired by the 2009 murder of a young black man by a white police officer in San Francisco; and Captain Phillips, a studio film chronicling of the 2009 hijacking of a U.S. cargo ship by Somali pirates. The events that inspired each of these films happened only three or four years ago! (If one is feeling generous, one might also include on this Diana, Jobs and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, although the events that inspired each of them are a little less recent.)

When and why did this trend begin to really gain steam? I would argue that its rise coincided with the rise of the Internet and the emergence of the 24/7 cable news media, which created, among the American intelligentsia, an insatiable hunger for news that is presented in entertaining ways. Over the years since then, much of the population has turned en masse to movies that are big-budget fantastical remakes, sequels and adaptations and to TV programs that present escapist "reality." But the rest still hungers for something closer to "real reality," and their needs have been met through film and television projects of this sort.

Things really revved up after Sept. 11, 2001, when many in Hollywood wanted to address that most significant event of the 21st century -- but not "too soon." In 2006, everyone seemed to blink at the same time, with the release of the theatrical films Click, United 93 and World Trade Center all hit theaters and the TV films Flight 93, from A&E, and The Flight That Fought Back, from Discovery. (United 93 received a best director Oscar nom, but not one for best picture, and both Flight 93 and The Flight That Fought Back were nominated for Emmys.) The subject later was revisited in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011), which received a best picture Oscar nom.

America's partisan political tensions -- which increased markedly after the 1998 impeachment of Democrat Bill Clinton and the Supreme Court's decision to award the contested 2000 presidential election to Republican George W. Bush -- spawned a number of quick turnarounds, as well. In 2008, while Bush was still in office, HBO aired Jay Roach's Recount, a TV movie about the Bush vs. Gore electoral fight (which went on to win the Emmy for outstanding miniseries or movie), and Lionsgate released the film W., Oliver Stone's biopic about the 43rd president. Meanwhile, the subsequent 2008 presidential race was documented even before another presidential election cycle came around, via Roach's Game Change (2012), another HBO TV movie (which also went on to win the Emmy for outstanding miniseries or movie).

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The other major events of the new millennium also were covered on screen not long after they happened in real life. The tragic emergence of gun violence in American schools was the subject of Elephant (2003), a film that clearly was inspired by the 1999 Columbine shooting and similar copycat crimes. The rise of Islamist extremism was addressed in the film A Mighty Heart (2007), via the prism of the 2002 kidnapping and beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl. The devastation wrought by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was captured in the films Hereafter (2010) and The Impossible (2012). The impact of lives being increasingly lived online was the subtext of The Social Network (2010), a film about the events leading up to the founding of Facebook in 2004. (It was nominated for the best picture Oscar.) The collapse of the U.S. economy thanks to Wall Street adventurism was at the center of the film Margin Call (2011), which essentially imagines what it would have been like to be inside Goldman Sachs when things hit the fan in 2008. And the war on terrorism was more or less documented by Zero Dark Thirty (2012), a film about the years of work that led up to the 2011 raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden (which was nominated for the best picture Oscar).

There are plenty of other examples, as well, of projects that deal with stories of narrower import. Julia Roberts won a best actress Oscar for Erin Brokovich (2000), about the major 1993 class-action lawsuit brought by the title character; Charlize Theron won a best actress Oscar for Monster (2003), about the life and 2002 execution of a female serial killer; Don Cheadle received a best actor Oscar nomination for Hotel Rwanda (2004), which is based on a 1998 book about a man who behaved heroically during the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Helen Mirren won a best actress Oscar for The Queen (2006), about the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana in 1997. And Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011) and West of Memphis (2012) both documented the imprisonment and 2011 liberation of three young men who spent years in jail for a murder they did not commit. (The former film was nominated for the best documentary feature Oscar.)

With theatrical and TV films of this sort clearly feeding the appetite of a not inconsiderable chunk of the public -- and often attracting major acclaim and awards -- I see no reason to believe that this trend will fade anytime soon. In fact, as you may have heard, NBC is planning a TV miniseries about the life and rise of Hillary Clinton, which is causing a bit of controversy at the moment because it probably would come out right around the time -- you guessed it -- that Clinton is expected to announce her intentions for the 2016 presidential race.