Whatever happened to the prologue at the beginning of ambitious films? They really haven’t gone completely away, despite not always getting the attention they deserve. Almost all of the classic ones in film history were meant to set up some backstory in order to make the rest of the tale more compelling. Sometimes that prologue was done with a mere voiceover and one line. Other times it was meant to set up the present so a particular atmosphere could be conveyed before the real plot began.
With “The Fifth Estate” now released about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, we see the return of the prologue in film for the first time since probably the “Life of a Bullet” prologue in “Lord of War.” The former one seems to be getting a little more attention when you consider The New York Times did a featured article about the prologue’s production. But is it really necessary to give people backstory, or is it a cop out to remove any method of making the past a mystery to the present plot?
A prime template in how well it used to work comes from the greatest American example: Orson Welles. The prologue to “Citizen Kane” may be the longest in the history of American film if you include the “News on the March” segment after the famous utterance of “Rosebud.” Put together, the “Kane” prologue runs close to 15 minutes. Its ingenuity comes in telling Charles Foster Kane’s entire life in a visually dazzling way so you’re assimilating important information without it feeling unnecessary.
Seventeen years later, Welles used a new approach to the prologue with “Touch of Evil.” This prologue was one complete tracking shot taking place on a Mexican street and involving a bomb placed in a car. It was everything you needed to know to set up the present story without one word being uttered.
The same applied to the extended prologue of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, despite some elements that were taken out due to length. Let’s be thankful Stanley Kubrick re-edited the sequence to take out interviews of scientists and thinkers about their impressions of intelligent life. It’s hard to imagine now that Kubrick wanted those interviews in there to convince an audience his movie would be far above lowbrow.
By the time the movies got to 1977’s “Star Wars”, the prologue was reduced to a mere statement to keep things simple. Is that the approach movies should take today, or can an extensive prologue still be made that won’t make people stir impatiently in their seats? “The Fifth Estate’s” prologue is just under a minute and manages to convey the entire history of news dissemination in the process. As compelling as that prologue is, most people know about WikiLeaks and may not really be necessary for the overall narrative.
Today, a prologue might reveal too much when creating backstory mystery is usually far more compelling than giving anything away. The “In a galaxy far, far away” prologues of the original “Star Wars” trilogy are ironic now considering the backstory was eventually told to us in detail and might have tarnished some of the “Star Wars” mystique.
The only reason for using a prologue now is to perhaps bring compelling irony to the story. The relational prologue in “The Fifth Estate” to how we view journalism doesn’t really do anything other than give us goose bumps seeing history unfold in under a minute.
With limited chances to capture massive attention deficits, it might be a perfect device we’ll be seeing more often just to make a film look more important than it really is.