Your attitudes towards Julian Assange may vary based upon whether or not his website WikiLeaks has been helpful to your particular political party. In 2006, Assange started the controversial website and began leaking documents that painted the administration of George W. Bush in an unpopular light, making him a hero for liberals. A decade later, Assange and WikiLeaks dumped tens of thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Party and the campaign of Hillary Clinton that led liberals to all but abandoned him while he’s become an unlikely hero to conservatives.
And yet for all of his political activism (or hacktivism) there’s little evidence to suggest that Assange is a man of deeply held convictions. He talks of open information for governments and those involved with governance but retains a firewall around himself. The odd journey of Julian Assange from hero to villain (or vice versa) is documented in Laura Poitras’ Risk. Poitras, who won an Oscar for her Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour, has unprecedented access to the silver-haired figure behind countless moments of political controversy. Filmed over six years of close proximity to Assange, Risk presents a public figure who doesn’t quite practice what he preaches. There’s very little within Risk to make you believe that you can have a better understanding of Assange aside from his enormous ego. And yet it’s still a captivating piece of documentary filmmaking, even if Poitras makes some rather questionable decisions later in the movie.
The film opens in 2010. Assange and WikiLeaks editor Sarah Harrison are trying to reach the State Department of the United States to warn them that classified cables may be leaked following a security breach of Wikileaks’ passwords. Here is a moment of unintentional comedy as Harrison asks the person on the other end if she can speak with Secretary Clinton, because most Secretaries of State are known for answering calls from strangers regarding classified documents.
Assange has surrounded himself with a team of people of varying skill sets and each seems to have their own ideological reasons for aligning with him. I believe that Assange employs a vagueness to his own political ideals in order to lure people of varying ideological stances within his realm. Among Assange’s closest cohorts is Jacob Appelbaum, whom is traveling the globe teaching cybersecurity as part of the Tor Project.
Legal and political pressure are soon put on Assange, and he carries out meeting in an empty park, hiding in the bushes; he almost seems to be playing up his own paranoia for the cameras in this particular instance. Assange will soon face extradition to Sweeden where he’s accused of rape and sexual assault. In meetings with a lawyer, Assange says disparaging things about his accusers and he’s advised not to say such thing. Seemingly unaware that cameras are fixed on him, he corrects his counsel and says “in public” repeatedly even though this footage will eventually be made public. As his legal team battles in the British courts to fight his extradition, Assange skips court and dons a ridiculous disguise involving dyed hair and a fake goatee where he will smuggle himself into the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he’s remained ever since.
When Poitras is contacted by Edward Snowden and takes a break from this film to document Citzenfour, Assange shows a level of jealousy towards the filmmaker. He accuses her of abandoning the project for her own self-aggrandizement. Meanwhile, Assange continues to have visitors and conduct interviews from his own corner of the Ecuadorian embassy. Perhaps the funniest moment of Risk comes when Lady Gaga visits Assange and is interviewing him. He’s giving a lengthy answer as to the nature of his enemies, listing individually the law enforcement organizations after him. Lady Gaga cuts through his evasive answering with a simple one-sentence summation that shuts up Assange and highlights his own sense of grandstanding.
As the Snowden revelations begin to make waves, Sarah Harrison travels to Hong Kong and assists the former NSA contractor in his trip to Russia, ensuring that she’ll be unable to return to London. Meanwhile, Jacob Appelbaum has resigned from the Tor Project following numerous accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct, at which point Poitras discloses that she had a brief relationship with him. (I believe this revelation raises questions about Poitras’ objectivity with the movie.) Though the accusations made against Assange in Sweden have exceeded the statute of limitations, he remains holed up in the embassy.
As Risk races towards its conclusion, Poitras runs down the latest controversial releases of WikiLeaks and how they assisted the election of Donald Trump with their release of DNC emails. All of which has made WikiLeaks believed to be in service of the Russian government, a charge which Assange denies. Poitras informs us that she presented Assange with a rough cut of the film at which point he told her that he would have to disavow his involvement in the making of the movie.
At one point in the film, Poitras narrates that she’s not making the movie that she intended to make, and that becomes all the more apparent as the film goes on. Julian Assange doesn’t at any point come across as this person of deeply held convictions. Instead it’s almost a form of anarchy that he believes in, dumping information with the sole intent to just disrupt systems. Say what you will about Edward Snowden, it does seem that he dispersed the information he did because of some ideological inclination. Conversely, Assange sits there with a crooked, smug smile and never really drops his guard to present even the slightest hint of a political ideology. When Risk reached its end, I was convinced that Julian Assange has no deeply held convictions aside from the greatness of Julian Assange.
Whether you think of him as a hero or a villain, there’s no denying that Julian Assange has been one of the key political figures of the 21st century. Risk isn’t a documentary that places him a pedestal, but uses its intimacy to present a character study of this controversial figure. There’s something unsettling about a man who claims to wage a war against secrets yet refuses to be open about himself, and Poitras is only able to find the slightest cracks in that façade. Julian Assange wants to use information as a weapon against governments in order to reshape the world. That might not be so bad if we had any inclination into what he wants to reshape it as.
- Overall Score
A documentary of personal and political nature, Laura Poitras’ Risk gets unprecedented access to Julian Assange but presents a character study of a man who preaches openness and remains closed off, showing Assange as a person without deeply held political convictions aside from his own greatness.