Julian Assange, as you may know, is the founder of WikiLeaks, a website that publishes secret information contributed by anonymous sources in the name of truth. Laura Poitras is the Oscar-winning director of Citizenfour, the documentary about another famous leaker, Edward Snowden. Filmed over a period of 6 years, Risk is Poitras’ documentary about Julian Assange.
Early on in the documentary, WikiLeaks is attempting to contact Hillary Clinton regarding some secret documents that are about to get leaked – not intentionally by them, but because their password got “exposed.” This is the least of their trouble. As you may know, they go on to publish a document dump leaked by Chelsea Manning, which earns them a criminal investigation by the American government. Shortly afterward, Sweden issues an arrest warrant for Assange over allegations of sexual assault and rape. He denies guilt but is more concerned that he’ll be extradited to the U.S. So, he breaches bail and flees to Ecuador where he’s been living at the embassy ever since
I didn’t really love Citizenfour and I think I like Risk even less. Laura Poitras has a knack for inserting herself into documentaries, and going easy on her subjects. I feel like I didn’t learn much about Julian Assange, though this documentary isn’t much more than a character portrait. He does say some crazy stuff about women that reminds us that though he’s got high and mighty principles when it comes to freedom of information, his morals to do extend to people, or their freedom to say no.
My takeaway from Risk is that if we’re looking to Assange for a saviour, we’re fucked. Dude is not a good guy. His ego and self-righteousness are astounding. Poitras comes off as being cowed in his presence, and fails to temper his own unreliable narration with any counterbalance. It’s uneven, and frustrating in that it lacks any meaningful commentary on more contemporary events. After all, WikiLeaks worked hand in hand with Russia to release the info they hacked which shaped the U.S. presidential election. And Assange has admitted that a Trump win was his preference. So while WikiLeaks pretend to be about ‘freedom of information’ it’s actually about curating that information in false and misleading and one-sided ways, for their own benefit or for others. And while Edward Snowden did what he did at least in part because he believes that every individual’s privacy is something to hold dear, WikiLeaks has destroyed personal privacy, releasing social security numbers, medical history, and credit card numbers of private citizens.
I wish this documentary had the balls to paint this dubious hero as the true villain that he is, but Poitras doesn’t quite commit. The finished work feels compromised. And as usual, I find her work to be without point of view. Risk feels like a bunch of footage, some of it revealing, some of it interesting, some of it randomly and inexplicably featuring Lady Gaga, but it never really comes together. Is there a movie in there somewhere, I wonder? But mostly I don’t care.