TORONTO — The past promises to loom large at this year’s 38th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, which got underway Thursday with the world premiere of “The Fifth Estate,” a drama about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that seeks to process current events with lightning speed. Since “The Birth of a Nation” at least, the cinema has been a convenient — sometimes malign — medium for codifying immediate history. But after last year’s triple threat of “Lincoln,” “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” the trend of filmmakers mining the never-ending vein of real-life subjects seems to be as popular as ever.
So at this year’s TIFF, movies with opening epigrams like “based on” and “inspired by” are especially hot: Not just “The Fifth Estate” but such buzzy films as “12 Years a Slave,” about 19th century figure Northrop Solomon, “Rush,” about the Formula One rivals James Hunt and Niki Lauda, and “Kill Your Darlings,” starring Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg during his time as a Columbia University student will play here over the next 10 days, in the hopes of kick-starting a productive journey on the awards campaign trail.
The gambit is proven, but not sure-fire: “The Fifth Estate” is already being dinged in some quarters as too pedestrian to make the Oscar short list in a year that will also include “August: Osage County” (an all-star adaptation of the Tracy Letts play) and “Gravity,” Alfonso Cuaron’s 3-D science fiction epic that received rapturous reviews out of its recent debut in Venice. (Both films will play here in the next few days.)
Still, “The Fifth Estate,” in which of-the-moment British actor Benedict Cumberbatch delivers an eerily spot-on impersonation of the whey-faced, socially awkward, technologically brilliant Assange, felt like an appropriate way to kick off the festival Thursday night, during which the late critic Roger Ebert and the gorgeous 100-year-old Elgin and Winter Garden movie palaces (where the premiere took place) were honored. Directed by Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls,” “Twilight”), who tries with uneven success to make a movie about men staring at computers visually arresting, “The Fifth Estate” serves what seems to be the agreed-upon purpose of today’s ripped-from-the-headlines movies: to provide an accessible, lucid digest of events that many viewers otherwise experience as an unintelligible sea of data points.
Of course, if the result is a hit movie, the filmmaker has created an exceptionally potent, far-ranging first draft of history — a responsibility that Condon, at least, handles by assiduously avoiding a point of view, focusing instead on Assange’s prickly personality and on-the-one-hand arguments about the issues of privacy, transparency, security and democracy that WikiLeaks has engaged since its founding seven years ago.
Still, an unmistakable note of anxiety threads through “The Fifth Estate,” in which legacy journalists can be seen agonizing over redactions and protecting lives while Assange blithely dispenses with such old-media niceties. Similar qualms about eras passing could be felt in two films that played earlier Thursday: “Don Jon,” a media-critique-cum-romantic-comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt that premiered at South by Southwest, and “Only Lovers Left Alive,” Jim Jarmusch’s gorgeously gothic vampire tale that bowed at Cannes in May.
Although far from based on true stories, both “Don Jon” and “Only Lovers Left Alive” are firmly grounded in the preoccupations of today. “Don Jon” questions (sometimes clumsily) how internalized media messages, from porn to Disney princesses, distort our notions of love and commitment. “Only Lovers” portrays vampires as weary observers of the myriad ways the rest of us (“zombies”) continue to contaminate the world and fear the very imaginations that could save our collective life. Like “The Fifth Estate,” Jarmusch’s alternately elegant and whimsical meditation possesses an autumnal, what’s-to-become-of-us air of wistfulness. But, as a wise man recently opined, complaining is not a strategy. As one of Gordon-Levitt’s bros tells his character in “Don Jon,” both movies understand that, even for those writing history with lightning, it’s time to go to the long game.