Directed by Laura Poitras. (2017, NR, 94 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 5, 2017
Documentary director Laura Poitras is back with her follow-up feature to her 2014 Oscar winner Citizenfour, in which she filmed NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden while he was in hiding in Hong Kong in the aftermath of his disclosures about government spying on U.S. citizens. A great deal of that movie’s appeal lay in its of-the-moment sense of history unfolding before our eyes. With Risk, Poitras points her camera at another hard-to-reach man of the hour, Julian Assange, the besieged and admired founder of WikiLeaks.
Actually, Poitras began her documentation of Assange in 2010, before detouring into the news-making urgency of Citizenfour. After its release, she returned to finishing Risk. Further complicating matters, Risk had its world premiere in May 2016 at Cannes, where many of the reviews criticized the documentary for taking a one-sided, supportive stance toward Assange and valorizing his fight for the unmitigated freedom of information. Now, a year later, a new edit of Risk is premiering in U.S. theatres, and this cut takes a more measured, if not ambiguous approach to the present-day fugitive. During the time since her completion of filming in 2016, the WikiLeaks dump of the Hillary Clinton emails played an undeniable hand in the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, and further allegations of sexual assault have been made against Assange (who continues to reside in asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy in London), as well as one of his key spokesmen, hacker Jacob Appelbaum. Although Assange had allowed Poitras exceptionally free access to film him and his WikiLeaks endeavors and cohorts, the two had a falling out in 2016, as Poitras’ attitude about her subject grew more ambiguous.
The primary difference between the approaches taken in Risk and Citizenfour is Poitras’ inclusion of herself as a character in the new film. She reads from her production journal, in which she records her growing skepticism about the righteousness of WikiLeaks and its confounding leader. Why, she wonders, does Assange allow her such unfettered access to his life and thoughts? The assembled footage presents a view of the man as both a vulnerable visionary and obfuscating brute. Most striking are Assange’s misogynistic statements to his attorney about the “feminist conspiracy” to bring him down via the rape charges. At another point, he counsels his assistant (and perhaps lover) Sarah Harrison to “Do the feminine thing,” when she is apprehensive about personal questions that may be asked of her at a press conference. Most revealingly, Poitras discloses that she had a romantic relationship with Appelbaum prior to the rape charges that were lobbed against him by other women in the movement. Yet Poitras doesn’t hide her admiration for Assange’s ideals and for teaching her things about secrecy she didn’t know she needed to learn. In the end, however, Poitras’ portrait of Assange in exile exudes a less acute sense of history unfolding before our eyes than does Citizenfour.