Toronto: Bill Condon's 'Political' Julian Assange Drama 'Fifth Estate' Opens Fest

6:17 PM PST 09/05/2013 by Etan Vlessing
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Benedict Cumberbatch

The WikiLeaks pic premiered at a star-studded ceremony, which also featured stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Bruhl and Dan Steven.

TORONTO -- The Fifth Estate director Bill Condon said on Thursday night that he'd "wanted to make a political film for some time" and has done so with his movie biopic about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

"What was rich about this story is it deals with an area of privacy and transparency in an Internet age and about what secrets are too important not to tell," the filmmaker said as his true-life drama opened the Toronto Film Festival.

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And with Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning making headlines, Condon added that the issue of whistleblowers as hero or pariah was ripe for viewing and debate by moviegoing audiences.

"This is a story that continues to be central and also sees people of great intelligence and good disagree. Hopefully, this film presents the issue in all its complexity, and I hope to start a conversation," Condon said.

Earlier, Condon and the cast of The Fifth Estate -- including Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Assange, Dan Steven and Daniel Bruhl -- walked the red carpet into Roy Thomson Hall for the gala premiere.

The film's screenwriter, Josh Singer (The West Wing), during a pre-gala party hosted by Bell Media at Roy Thomson Hall, recounted two years ago being courted by DreamWorks to take on the screen adaptation of the Assange story.

The film is based on two books about Assange: Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s 2011 book, Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website, and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by David Leigh and Luke Harding.

"Deciding to take a shot, I spent the weekend with some college buddies, trying to get my head around how to cover the (WikiLeaks) issues and make it entertaining," Singer recounted.

"I hope we've done that," he added.

Noah Cowan, artistic director of Bell Lightbox and a key part of the TIFF brain trust, said programming a movie about a whistleblower presented a dilemma for the prestigious film festival.

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"No one fears leaks more than the Toronto International Film Festival," Cowan insisted, pointing to ever-present efforts to keep its annual September film lineup a secret until it is revealed.

"We suffer the same ills as the Pentagon," he added.

At the same time, The Fifth Estate, in tackling issues of privacy vs. public transparency when it comes to classified government and corporate documents, presents Toronto with a provocative opening-night film likely to draw global media attention.

"What's freedom of information, if that means anything anymore," Cowan questioned.

The opening-night speeches by the cast and director of The Fifth Estate were preceded by a tribute to the late Roger Ebert.

Ebert's widow, Chaz Ebert, was presented with a memorial plaque to recognize the support her husband gave to the Toronto Film Festival over the years. And a chair in cinema one at Bell Lightbox will be inscribed with Ebert's name in his memory.

"Roger Ebert was a huge presence at our festival for 30 years. He was one of the key people who put us on the map," Piers Handling, CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival Group, said before a short and moving film about Ebert and his long relationship with Toronto was screened.

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"As you can imagine, it's bittersweet being here tonight. I'm so grateful … that the festival he so loved is honoring him," Chaz Ebert said.

Ebert's widow then pointed to world leaders currently meeting in Russia as part of the G20 Summit. She recommended that the political leaders meet in part at TIFF and view a selection of world cinema to learn about the virtues of humanity over conflict.

"Our world leaders are at the G20 Summit. You know what we should do? Some of the Summit should be at TIFF, so they can understand what it's like to be a child in a refugee camp, so they can know what it's like to live in poverty," Chaz Ebert said.

"Maybe we can have peace, instead of war," she added to applause from the audience.

The Toronto Film Festival runs through Sept. 15.

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