Film Review: RiskLaura Poitras offers a worthwhile look at WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that somehow still feels half-finished.
In 2015, filmmaker Laura Poitras won an Academy Award for her Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour, a movie which seemingly came from out of nowhere, showing a side of Snowden few ever imagined they would have a chance to see.
Risk is a follow-up in the sense that it focuses on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, another controversial figure in the fight for freedom of speech and information. It is not your typical biographical doc covering Assange’s entire history or life story, instead expecting the viewer to know who Assange is and why he might be of interest going into the movie.
In 2010, Assange’s WikiLeaks published thousands of classified documents from the U.S. State Department leading to Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning being court-martialed and sent to jail. A grand jury investigation of Assange began just as Poitras embedded herself within his camp. For the most part, Risk is comprised of fly-on-the-wall footage of Assange meeting with his staff and being interviewed by Poitras, and like with Snowden, she’s given absolutely astounding access.
It’s evident Poitras is good at getting people to talk, whether it’s directly to her or with her camera present, although Assange is just as good at thinking carefully before speaking, for the most part. The fact Assange has never been a particularly likeable character makes Risk far less compelling than Citizenfour, but what does make it unique is Poitras’ running narrative from her production journal, unsure about whether the movie she’s making is turning out the way she expected.
After a trip to Sweden in 2010, Assange is accused of sexual misconduct by two women, which threatens to derail the movement that’s formed around WikiLeaks and its attempts to keep people informed of what’s really happening in government. After being ordered to return to Sweden for further questioning, Assange realizes that could be the first step to his being extradited to the United States to face up to the Manning security leaks, which likely would result in a prison sentence.
Assange’s constant paranoia about being recorded (while being filmed by Poitras) makes him seem more like a criminal than a political activist. It certainly doesn’t help his case when he receives amnesty from Ecuador and then holes up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for nearly four years to avoid extradition.
At a certain point in the movie, there’s a sudden three-year break during which Poitras presumably went to meet Snowden and make Citizenfour. One can assume Snowden reached out to Poitras, knowing she had already been filming Assange, who helped Snowden get asylum in Russia, but it’s a rather odd and quite off-putting time in the movie for a break. Apparently, Poitras and Assange also had some sort of falling out, which is never elaborated upon in the film.
Risk premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May, but then substantial additions needed to be made when WikiLeaks played a part in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as documents from the Democratic Party were published on the site with allegations Russia may have been responsible for hacking and releasing said documents.
Late last year, Poitras had another opportunity to talk with Assange, although nothing particularly groundbreaking comes from that final short interview. The film ends, offering no solid answers, maybe because this story still isn’t complete.
Because of that, Risk is never nearly as satisfying as Citizenfour, especially considering how much we already know about Assange going into the movie. Risk never goes as far to offer insights into what makes Assange tick, as we were able to get from Poitras’ Snowden doc, but it does give us another glimpse at an enigmatic icon.
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