Directed by Laura Poitras
Opens May 5
The first thing Julian Assange does in Risk is attempt to speak with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the phone. “You’re not important enough,” his assistant tells him after unsuccessfully lobbying her assistants to hand her phone. Assange’s reason for calling is noble—he wants to warn her about a trove of State department documents containing classified information that are soon going to be published by a different source—but his confident, bellicose demeanor suggests something more. Shortly thereafter, we see Jacob Appelbaum, a friend and associate and a developer of Tor speaking in Egypt shortly after the Arab Spring. He notes that businesses are taking credit for the revolution but when it was happening they shut down internet and in fact worked to quell rebellion. Appelbaum’s statements are greeted with applause by the Egyptian people and agitate the business leaders in the room, but he keeps attacking, even as they begin responding. Still, his compulsion to speak truth to power is cathartic.
Both scenes hint at the contradictions and failings of Assange, WikiLeaks, and its broader network, and it is these contradictions that, by director Laura Poitras’ own admission in a voiceover, came to overwhelm the story rather than exist apart from it, and indeed, Risk spends far more time with Assange in social situations, in the everyday, and in court than on the Afghan and Iraq War logs or the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath (late additions to the film, which first screened at last year’s Cannes Film Festival before WikiLeaks became a major player in the election).
It doesn’t take long for the darker side of Assange to come out in full. He is seen discussing with his lawyer how to address accusations of rape from two women. She suggests that, rather than immediately attacking his accusers on personal grounds, he note that rape is a grave issue, but that these particular allegations are unfounded—such a statement would likely go over with the public better than calling them power-hungry, gold-digging feminazis. Assange reluctantly agrees, but can’t help but claim his accusers were likely spurred on by radical feminists. Later in the film, we learn of Appelbaum’s own reputation for sexual abuses, and Poitras discloses that she had a brief fling with him and that he was abusive toward one of her friends shortly thereafter.
If this film were solely a work of investigative journalism, such disclosures might seem out of place, but Risk is as much a film about the process of its own making and its creator as it is about its subjects. The story of Assange is quite literally interrupted by Poitras’s own story and what became Citizenfour. Those wary that Risk is simply another instance of a leftist journalist working with a controversial renegade who discloses embarrassing and unconstitutional conduct by the United States can rest easy.
It’s worth noting that Assange is apparently unhappy with the film, feeling it pays too much attention to the rape allegations against him, and Poitras openly admits to not trusting him, so it is very possible that her access has been compromised. With new developments and information so frequent, it’s hard to know exactly how Poitras should have handled the film, and she seems to struggle with this question in her final voiceovers. There is admittedly a patchwork feeling to Risk’s final stretch, which was being edited as recently as mid-April, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service” without First Amendment rights. It summarizes the developments through a brief clip of speeches from each of Clinton and Donald Trump as well as Congressional testimony, and the only revealing moment we see from Assange himself is from before the conventions, when he says that things are “not looking good” because Clinton is “a total warmonger” and Trump is “completely unpredictable.” Still, Poitras’s sudden lack of access and clear disenchantment with aspects of WikiLeaks and Assange help Risk feel like a living, breathing portrait of a filmmaker and journalist struggling to compartmentalize, a self-portrait by necessity.
Perhaps most remarkable, however, is that Poitras ultimately does make sense of the disconnect between the monstrosity of personal character and the validity of principles and professional endeavors, the rape and apparent Trump support on one hand, and the publication of the Collateral Murder video and the Iraq and Afghanistan War logs and attacks on US imperialism on the other. Just as Poitras’s doubts and worries become front and center, she cuts to audio of Sessions proclaiming, “We are going to step up our efforts on all leaks, whenever a case can be made we will seek to put some people in jail.” It’s easy, given what we see of Assange in the film and have recently seen from WikiLeaks in real life, to root for his punishment. But when Sessions comes to jail the next whistleblower or leaker, someone we don’t find quite so easy to hate, it will be too late: the precedent will already be in place.