The most revealing scene in Risk, Oscar-winner Laura Poitras’ (Citzenfour) documentary portrait of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, comes during a meeting (in either late 2010 or 2011) between Assange and his lawyer Helena Kennedy. Discussing the sexual assault charges levied against him by two Swedish women, Kennedy pleads with the gray-haired whistleblower to speak more sensitively about the case, which has thrown an unflattering spotlight on him and his mission. According to Kennedy, Assange should employ careful language that helps him explain his points without sounding angry and persecuted by a “feminist conspiracy.”
Assange agrees to follow this advice—at least in front of the cameras, admitting that when it comes to railing against his accusers, “Publicly, it’s not helpful.” However, he then confesses his true feelings about the scandal: “Privately, it’s a social democratic party plus general influence from the government. It’s just a thoroughly tawdry, radical, feminist political positioning thing. It’s some stereotype.” As Kennedy grimaces and tries to dissuade him from such vitriol, he continues, stating that one of the accusers is a woman who founded a lesbian nightclub in Gothenburg (“she’s in that circle”)—the implication being that this proves she’s an untrustworthy liar—and then refers to his two accusers as “running as a tag team.”
It is, to put it mildly, an unflattering moment for Assange, and speaks to the public/private dynamic that’s explored—albeit in vague fashion—by Poitras’ film, which is culled from the hours of footage she shot while spending time by his side. It begins when Assange first came to global prominence in 2010 for leaking classified U.S. government documents (acquired by Chelsea Manning). And it concludes just after the 2016 election, which was heavily swayed by WikiLeaks’ release of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta, which helped smear Clinton and aid Donald Trump’s quest for the White House. In-between, what the filmmaker presents is a half-formed sketch, one that lacks the thoroughness or momentum of Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, and one that’s primarily notable for displaying the odiousness—both in the media and behind the scenes—of its subject.
Assange is first introduced espousing his belief that people who take principled stances don’t last long, and that to survive, such individuals must invariably balance their convictions with a need to achieve their desired goals. Later on, Poitras—in one of many instances of oh-so-concerned voiceover narration—confesses, “I thought I could ignore the contradictions. I thought they were not part of this story. I was so wrong. They are becoming the story.” The fundamental problem with Risk, however, is that it presents no complex contradictions, unless one shares the film’s bedrock assumption that Assange initially embarked on an inherently honorable course (and/or believed he had), and then fell victim to his own personal (and philosophical) failings.
Poitras forwards no compelling evidence or argument in favor of Assange’s work as an instrument for the greater good. Consequently, the fact that he’s a potential sexual predator, as well as complicit in helping the Russian government sabotage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, aren’t at odds with his former nobility; rather, they seem like natural extensions of an idealist who thinks he can act as he likes with impunity, damn the consequences. Throughout Risk, Poitras articulates growing unease with Assange, whom she comes to distrust, and who gets increasingly displeased with her, due to her refusal to share Edward Snowden’s NSA secrets with him (and, it’s clear, his jealousy over Snowden’s celebrity). Yet from start to finish, he comes across as the same individual: detached, pretentious, paranoid, nasty, and so sanctimonious it’s repellent.
Assembled from scattered bits and pieces of footage shot in Assange’s company, some of it noteworthy and much of it pedestrian, the film stands at a constant remove from the WikiLeaks mastermind. Assange talks about the relationship between risk and opportunity, and about his courageous refusal to rat out his friends upon first being arrested in 1996. Nonetheless, he deliberately keeps his innermost thoughts to himself. Residing since 2012 in London’s Ecuadorian embassy in order to avoid extradition to Sweden to face rape prosecution (and, he fears, transfer to the U.S. for violating the Espionage Act), Assange is a man boxed in on all sides, raging against a machine for a cause that—from the outset—seems mostly designed to stoke his own massive ego.
In a shot of Assange navigating a sea of reporters outside a courthouse, and in a dreadful-for-all-involved visit from Lady Gaga—who “interviews” him about his favorite foods, acts aghast at his embassy living accommodations (“It’s like I’m in college. Where do you sleep?”), and generally comes off as an uninformed fangirl—Risk suggests the hunger for celebrity that drives Assange. The latter sequence is one of almost staggering cluelessness, but it’s in keeping with the general, naïve cult of celebrity that’s emerged around him, compelling one protestor to blindly pledge his allegiance to Assange regardless of the ugly allegations against him.
During a clandestine conversation in a wooded area with an associate, Assange orders Poitras to check out a nearby area to make sure no one is spying on him. Coupled with her admission that she had been romantically involved with Assange’s buddy—and fellow accused sexual predator—Jacob Appelbaum (who founded the anonymous web-browsing Tor Project), the incident reveals Poitras to be a complicit partner in Assange’s insurgent game. And while she develops regrets when Assange’s creepiness becomes too much to bear, and his amoral stance regarding the Russian-hacking scandal becomes indefensible, her film proves less an exposé than an embarrassed (and embarrassing) apologia about her own role in Assange’s whistleblowing mischief.
As supporters rally outside the embassy, their posters eager to turn him into a revolutionary symbol à la Guy Fawkes (whose masks they wear/buy), Assange sticks to his gun. In Risk, though, he barely bothers to even explain his ethos or motivations. For all its proximity, Poitras’ film never gets beneath his exterior—because, one senses, there’s nothing really there. He’s merely a true-believer who believes, above all other things, in his own stature as a figure of unimpeachable virtue and world-changing import. Like the spy-movie disguise he dons to sneak into the Ecuadorian embassy, however, he’s all phony façade, little substance.