At one point during "The Fifth Estate," Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) debates with colleagues whether to simply dump thousands of classified documents onto his website without actually reading them all -- or at least redacting names. "WikiLeaks doesn't edit," he says, simply.

For a movie that jump-starts its plot without much context during the first half, it's a surprisingly simple and effective summation of Assange and the crux of the WikiLeaks debate: Where does the public need to know end and the need for government secrecy begin?

It's a complicated issue, one that needs to be presented on the big screen in a similarly complicated way. But the problem with "The Fifth Estate," which opens Friday, is that it hits the ground sprinting like an action movie, and the big ideas don't solidify until it slows down enough to let the story's inherent suspense emerge.

Perhaps that's the danger in making a film in which you have to fill in the blanks while the real history is still shaking itself out.

Based on the books "Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website" by German tech activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played by Daniel Brühl) and "WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy," by David Leigh and Luke Harding, "The Fifth Estate" centers on Assange and Domscheit-Berg and their quest to expose government secrets on their Internet platform. Before long, they're scooping the established news media and drawing scrutiny from powerful people by exposing death squads in Kenya, fraud inside a Swiss bank and U.S. military prisoner abuses.


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Rather than tell the story chronologically, director Bill Condon ("Kinsey," "Dreamgirls") hops around in time and seems to throw us into the middle of a movie that started before we got to the theater. All of this makes it difficult to fathom just why these online crusaders are determined enough to put themselves in so much danger. For better or worse, Assange's motives remain ambiguous enough to leave viewers still wondering about him when the film is done. Some dream sequences and flashbacks are meant to add context and shed light on motives, but they just muddy the waters.

When he's given enough time and space to stretch out his portrayal, Cumberbatch is great in the role, capturing Assange's complex persona -- at times admirable, at times abrasive -- and dogged determination. However, his bromance drama with Brühl doesn't add much to the film.

The story gets bigger and much better when military whistle-blower Bradley Manning enters the picture. Manning, who has since changed genders and now identifies herself as Chelsea Manning, is not portrayed by an actor but simply appears in a photo. As the source of what's been called the biggest classified intelligence breach in history, Manning prompts WikiLeaks and other media outlets to grapple with what to do with the information while U.S. officials scramble to limit the damage (Laura Linney is typically convincing as a diplomat watching her career crumble as she tries countering the leaks). Finally, the film confronts the ethical questions that should have been at the heart of "The Fifth Estate" from the start. In addition, the focus on shifting ethical attitudes in a new information society finally takes hold and drives the movie. (Matters such as Assange's arrest on suspicion of sexual assault and his extradition fight are covered briefly at film's end but do not overshadow the bigger points.)

Ultimately, "The Fifth Estate" accomplishes its intent: offering some insight into an important milestone in history and prompting viewers to question and debate what they have just witnessed. Unfortunately, it takes too long to get there.

Contact Tony Hicks at Facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.TonyHicks or Twitter.com/insertfoot.

'The Fifth Estate'

* *

Rating: R (for language
and some violence)
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Brühl, Carice van Houten, Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci
Director: Bill Condon
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes