Toronto: Awards Prospects Limited for Fest Opener 'The Fifth Estate' (Analysis)

TORONTO -- The 38th Toronto Film Festival kicked off Thursday night at Roy Thomson Hall with a special tribute to the late Roger Ebert -- who I had the great honor of meeting here at TIFF two years ago -- followed by the world premiere of Bill Condon's WikiLeaks film The Fifth Estate, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as hacktivist Julian Assange. When the dramatic-thriller came to an end after two hours, the lights came up on Condon, Cumberbatch and the film's other stars -- Daniel Bruhl, Carice van Houten, Dan Stevens and Alicia Vikander -- sitting in the second tier of the 2,630-seat theater, and the audience responded with a standing ovation.

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I wouldn't read into that any Oscars significance: While many of the films playing at this year's fest are Oscar hopefuls, this one strikes me as more of a commercial play than an awards one. (This year's race is simply too crowded, and this one isn't great enough to compete on that terrain.) But it still makes sense to me that it's here: From the fest's perspective, it comes from a reputable Oscar-winning filmmaker, features a cast of international stars and centers around timely and controversial subject matter that is sure to pique people's interest. And from the perspective of DreamWorks, which will release the film Oct. 18, what could offer a better launching paid for the film than this fest and the giant media spotlight that comes with being the opening-night film?

The best elements of the film are the performances by Cumberbatch and Bruhl. Cumberbatch, a Brit and one of the fastest-rising stars in the business, nails Assange with a convincing Aussie accent, a slight lisp, snow-white hair and a somnambulant look in his eyes. Moreover, he gets to his essence: He is a hacker who is brilliant but also an egomaniac, a fabulist and, in the words of another character, "a manipulative asshole." He was two-faced about his operation, telling the world that it featured a team of hundreds, when in fact it largely revolved around him and his cruddy old laptop, alongside one reliable collaborator, Bruhl's Daniel Domscheit-Berg, at least until 2010. Bruhl, a chameleon in his own right, has the luxury of portraying a character who is far less familiar to the general public, and makes him his own. (He is also very good in another supporting part in another film at this year's TIFF, as Formula One race car driver Niki Lauda in Ron Howard's Rush.)

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Prior to the screening, Condon told the crowd, "I've wanted to make a political film for a long time." In a way, he has done that, capturing a story that relates to politics. But his film is not "political" in the sense of advocating a particular position. Instead, to its credit, it raises questions and presents both sides of the debate over WikiLeaks: Is it a journalistic outlet entitled to the same protections as other traditional journalistic outlets? If so, then doesn't it have to adhere to traditional journalistic standards and responsibilities, rather than assuming the position, which is stated in the film, that "WikiLeaks doesn't edit" -- even when content potentially jeopardizes people's lives -- because "editing reflects bias"? And is Assange helping or hurting society by promoting a world in which secrets no longer exist? Memorably, another character states in the film, "Only someone obsessed with his own secrets could come up with a way to reveal everyone else's."

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg