The secret's out: The Fifth Estate, which had its red-carpet world premiere on the opening night of the Toronto International Film Festival Thursday night, is a hit and on its way to the year's short-list of best films.
It's fresh, it's smart and there's not a wasted minute in director Bill Condon's rapid-fire film. And the few people on the planet who don't know who Benedict Cumberbatch is yet (and that apparently included no one within screaming distance as he walked TIFF's red carpet last night), this performance will launch him to the A-list of above-the-title actors. His portrayal of WikiLeaks creator Julian Assange is must-see stuff. One moment a crusader, the next a master manipulator, this is a fully-realized Assange, yet the audience is left to be the final arbiter.
The Fifth Estate opens with a break-neck history of our planet's mode of communications: hieroglyphics etched in stone, lead poured into typeset composition, quickly followed by film, radio, video and the Internet. In a flash, we are transformed from Thomas Paine's Common Sense to Peter Jennings broadcasting from the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the borders of responsibility that frame our freedom of the press have taken a beating in the 21st century and, in particular, Assange's vision of what is morally correct. And therein lies the tale of the Fifth Estate: how an Australian electrician became the most feared man on the planet without shooting a bullet or ordering someone's execution.
The Fifth Estate won't win the Best Picture of the Year at the 2014 Oscars. Hollywood won't let it. It needs a flesh-and-blood hero to praise, and Assange is way too controversial for that nonsense. But pay particular attention to a masterpiece script from screenwriter Josh Singer and you'll see that the only hero in The Fifth Estate is the truth. It may not necessarily be Assange's idea of the truth, but in each of our own conversations that this expert film will no doubt inspire.