By Mary Milliken
TORONTO (Reuters) - "The Fifth Estate," an unlikely thriller that chronicles the emergence of anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks and its enigmatic founder Julian Assange, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday.
English actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Assange, called the debut at Toronto the "perfect marriage" of a festival, known for its popular participation, and a film, about what he called "people journalism."
The festival is also considered a harbinger of the awards season. Films that have fared well in Toronto, like "Slumdog Millionaire," have gone on to win best picture Oscars.
Some 366 films, including 146 world premieres, will screen over 11 days. Transparency and secrecy in the Internet age have emerged as prevalent themes in the program, led by "The Fifth Estate."
The film, made and distributed by Disney/Dreamworks, was chosen to kick off Toronto weeks after former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked U.S. surveillance data with the help of WikiLeaks and Assange.
"As we have seen in the Edward Snowden case, this is a story that continues to be central, and we have also seen that people of great intelligence and goodwill disagree," director Bill Condon told the Toronto audience.
Condon said "The Fifth Estate" was not a judgment about WikiLeaks or Assange, but a portrayal of a complex issue that raises more questions than answers about the struggle between transparency, privacy and the security implications.
"There is no takeaway or single right or wrong," Condon told Reuters. "I hope people walk away and go to dinner to talk about it."
"The Fifth Estate" is based on the book by Assange's once-trusted lieutenant, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who joined the Australian activist in 2007. The two worked to make the site for whistle-blowers one of the most powerful sources of information, culminating with the largest leak of official secrets in American history in 2010.
Condon said one of the challenges he faced was how to make the film compelling. Two guys at laptops, communicating by instant message, isn't exactly spellbinding.
The film, however, moves at a fast clip, and the pace of the movement of messages and information heightens the drama. Cumberbatch's Assange is rude, awkward and unkempt, but what most turns off his allies, including editors at big newspapers that publish information from WikiLeaks, is his disregard for people, like informants, whose lives might be endangered by the leaks of government cables.
Assange has been highly critical of the film, but Condon said he hacked an early version of the script and is ill-informed about the portrayal of him and WikiLeaks.
"He called us the anti-WikiLeaks movie," Condon said. "You will find that it is in no way anything but kind of supportive, kind of a celebration of the idea behind WikiLeaks."
In addition to "The Fifth Estate," world premieres of note in Toronto include "August: Osage County" starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in a drama of a dysfunctional family, and "Dallas Buyers Club," in which Matthew McConaughey plays an AIDS activist who smuggles treatment drugs from Mexico.
The story of a free man who is enslaved in "12 Years a Slave" has its official premiere on Friday night in Toronto. But its first screening came last week in a surprise show at the Telluride Film Festival, where is drew critical acclaim and speculation about an Oscar nomination.
(Additional reporting by Sharon Reich; Editing by Stacey Joyce)