The Toronto Film Festival got off to a strong start with Bill Condon‘s penetrating and thought-provoking The Fifth Estate, the story of WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange. But it’s not a dry procedural or recital of recent headlines. This riveting drama is a character study of a narcissistic personality out of control, a man not afraid to leak everyone else’s secrets but his own. Benedict Cumberbatch, who can do no wrong lately, is brilliant as Assange. And Daniel Bruhl, who plays his colleague Daniel Domscheit-Berg, clearly is going to have a problem this awards season: He’s not only absolutely terrific in this role, he’s equally great in Ron Howard’s Rush which premieres here Sunday. When I told him right after the film he was going to be the breakout star of this festival, he just laughed. But take my word, this guy is the real deal and this is his year — if these two stirring supporting turns don’t cannibalize each other. As the film credits finished, Bruhl came up and hugged Condon, throwing superlatives his way. Bruhl had only previously seen a very rough cut of the film and was blown away by the final results.

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He should be. This film is reminiscent of the great political thrillers of the 1970s. Most will probably compare it to the recent The Social Network, since it deals with the Internet and all its possibilities, but it is far more akin to the social dramas that defined ’70s Hollywood filmmaking. In fact, let me go out on a limb: This is the best film of its kind to hit the screen since All The President’s Men in 1976Condon’s direction is reminiscent of the style employed by Alan Pakula in that film and others from the era like The Parallax View and Klute. And it moves like a freight train. Naysayers may quibble with the dense storyline but the acting is uniformly excellent (David Thewlis, Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney are other standouts). Where The Fifth Estate succeeds so strongly is in taking a fluid ripped-from-the-headlines story and making it timeless. Unlike last year’s Zero Dark Thirty, which had to completely rework its story when Osama bin Laden was suddenly captured and killed, this film is a complete character study and won’t be judged by ever-changing events. Some people may not care and that’s their problem but hopefully there’s an audience out there for a smart adult drama like this, but what you take away from it could depend what, from your own experience, you bring to it. I know this much: As a study of a person whose whole world view revolves only around themselves, this is as good as it gets. Assange has, sight unseen, already dismissed the film, but in a clever coda the movie even addresses that criticism. That’s how smart this thing is.

In his opening remarks Condon talked about the theme of the film. “I wanted to make a political film for a long time”, he said. “What I felt was especially rich about this story is it deals with an area of privacy and transparency in the Internet age and the question of secrets and which ones are too important not to tell, which ones are too important to keep. And who gets to decide. As we’ve seen in the Edward Snowden case, this is a story that continues to be central. We also see that people of great intelligence and good will disagree. That’s what we as filmmakers were trying to do with this movie. Not give answers, but raise the questions and hopefully present the issue in all its complexity and I hope that it will start a conversation.” He added that he thinks Toronto’s festival, of which he has been a part four times before, was the perfect place to do that.

Afterwards, DreamWorks head Stacey Snider was fielding compliments for taking on the challenging subject matter, not an easy sell for audiences weaned on current Bourne Identity-style political thrillers. I am told DreamWorks and its partner Participant aren’t even positioning this in the Oscar race just yet. They want it to open and do well before launching a campaign. I certainly would suspect Academy members looking for an intelligent thriller would consider this one. The studio though decided to open the festival when the opportunity arose because it is known as “the people’s festival” and they wanted to emphasize, first and foremost, this is a people’s movie not just another Oscar wannabe.

At the massive post-party (apparently everyone is invited at this “people’s” fest), reaction was mixed as were some early reviews which figured for a movie to which you bring your own life experience in some ways. Bottom line is, Condon has pulled it off. This is an important movie about the times in which we live, and the moral choices we make.

In opening the evening, the festival named a theater after the late critic Roger Ebert, always a champion of TIFF, and welcomed his widow Chazz who made some moving and funny opening remarks.  She even noted her husband wrote a book called Your Movie Sucks, which Condon later said he was mentioned in — not in a good way.

Considering the sometimes less-than-stellar opening nights in TIFF’s past, this one was a definite hit and a great start to the 11-day festival run so efficiently by director Piers Handling and co-director Cameron Bailey. By the way, and I suspect Ebert would agree, The Fifth Estate does not suck. It triumphs.