Laura Poitras Zeroes in on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks in the Elusive, Unsettling 'Risk'

Justin Chang
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Risk is first and foremost an impressive cinematic coup, a triumph of access to an elusive and sometimes combative subject.


Director: Laura Poitras
Cast: Julian Assange, Sarah Harrison, Jacob Appelbaum
US Release date: 2017-05-05

Laura Poitras’ Risk is hardly the first feature film to take on Julian Assange, the elfin WikiLeaks mastermind who has spent the past decade exposing powerful secrets and cultivating his notoriety on the world stage. He has been addressed in several prior documentaries, notably Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks and was even played by a platinum-haired Benedict Cumberbatch in the little-seen Hollywood drama, The Fifth Estate.

But Poitras, one of the most intrepid and incisive cinematic chroniclers of the post-9/11 world (My Country, My Country, The Oath), is the first filmmaker to have really locked Assange in her camera’s sights. Much like Citizenfour, her Oscar-winning 2014 portrait of the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, Risk is first and foremost an impressive cinematic coup, a triumph of access to an elusive and sometimes combative subject.

It is also an unsettling and fascinatingly unresolved piece of work, with little of the moment-to-moment suspense and dramatic focus that made Citizenfour so riveting.

This is only to be expected. While Snowden dropped his bombshells in a single spy-thriller-worthy Hong Kong escapade, the slippery Assange boasts a far blurrier set of motives and a much longer, more diffuse narrative to untangle.

The achievement -- and to some degree, the frustration -- of this sleek, searching movie is that Poitras’ access often seems to obscure as much as it clarifies. Whether you view Assange as a defender of the public’s right to know, a pesky geopolitical opportunist, a Donald Trump-enabling villain, a garden-variety sexual predator, or a misunderstood provocateur-hero, he is by no means an easy figure to pin down. And Risk, avoiding the pretense of objectivity and the trap of hagiography, has no interest in bringing the debate to a tidy conclusion.

In light of recent events, how could it? An 84-minute version of Risk premiered last May at the Cannes Film Festival, several months before WikiLeaks released more than 19,000 hacked Democratic National Committee emails during the run-up to the US presidential election. Given how explosively these activities thrust Assange back into the news and upended his reputation across the political spectrum, it’s unsurprising that Risk has since undergone its own significant transformation.

The new edit of the film runs about ten minutes longer than the Cannes cut. It’s messier but also more compelling, with an appreciably thornier, more critical view of its subject. While there is no new footage of Assange, whom Poitras apparently fell out with years ago, there is TV coverage from the campaign trail, updates on other key WikiLeaks personnel, and a wave of personal musings and disclosures from Poitras as she grapples anew with her impossible subject.

She began filming Assange at his home in Norfolk, England, in 2010, shortly before the so-called Cablegate leak, which saw the release of hundreds of thousands of confidential US diplomatic documents. In one of the film’s more quietly electrifying moments, we are in the room with Assange and his WikiLeaks editor Sarah Harrison as they try to inform then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s team about the massive info-dump headed their way. Speaking with a Clinton staffer on the phone, Assange is wry, calm and nervy enough to suggest that he’s doing them a favor: “This is your problem, not ours.”

In the long run, of course, the opposite will turn out to be true, as Assange comes to pay a personal price for his subversive activities. Much of the film finds him wasting away at London’s Ecuadorian embassy, where he has lived since 2012 to avoid facing a sexual-assault accusation in Sweden, plus the more threatening possibility of extradition to the US and a lifetime prison sentence.

Poitras’ attitude toward Assange seems to linger in that broad middle ground between guarded sympathy and outright disdain. She has little argument with his mission to protect the free flow of information, or his support of information leakers like Snowden and Chelsea Manning (whose commuted jail sentence under former President Obama is acknowledged here). One of the most galvanizing scenes finds WikiLeaks hacktivist Jacob Appelbaum -- the other major secondary figure here besides Harrison -- speaking on a panel in Cairo, where he passionately denounces the censorship of Twitter in Egypt during the Arab Spring.

But if Poitras agrees with Assange’s cause, she harbors few illusions about who he is, and Risk ultimately emerges as a portrait of a man who, living in self-imposed exile and hiding behind his lofty ideals, has fallen victim to his own bluster, ego and partially justified paranoia. He seems to both deflect and invite the camera’s attention, smiling his thin, mirthless little smiles and speaking in a soft, charismatic mumble. We see him consorting with his colleagues in the woods near Norfolk, so as to avoid the eyes and ears of the drone cameras that might be passing overhead.

In the film’s most jaw-droppingly surreal interlude, Lady Gaga drops by the Ecuadorian embassy to interview Assange in his captivity -- and for all her loopy questions (“What’s your favorite food?”), she comes off as the saner mind by far. Elsewhere, while Assange continues to deny the rape allegations against him, he makes boorish reference to a “radical feminist conspiracy” -- and it’s not the only time when Risk will acknowledge the culture of casual misogyny and sexual violence that thrives in various corners of hacker and activist culture.

At times, Poitras’ frustration with her subject, and with herself, is palpable. While integrity compels her to acknowledge her own role in the still-unfolding proceedings, she scrupulously remains off camera, allowing us to hear only her voice in brief recorded snippets -- a technique that, along with Jeremy Flower’s eerie music and the film’s occasional abstract visual interludes, naturally evokes a mood of suspicion and dread.

Like Citizenfour, Risk is not just a portrait of an outlaw personality but also an attempt to map the contours of the post-9/11 surveillance state, to grasp some of its ethical, legal and technological complications and give them a human face.

That face has largely receded by the time the film arrives at the 2016 presidential election, which Poitras covers with footage of the DNC and an ominously framed shot of a victorious President-elect Trump. You may wish that Poitras had still been in the room when it was all going down, the better to shed light on Assange’s motivations, the possibility of Russian interference and other questions that continue to linger.

But then, on some level, the real subject of Risk may not be Assange at all. Its truer theme, borne out by the film’s own recent transformation, might be the cruel unpredictability of time itself, its way of trapping us in our own muddled narratives. The movie’s title hints at the personal sacrifices that Assange made while playing a game that was, in many ways, of his own making. Time may yet reveal whether they were worth it, for him or for us.


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