Good timing. Just as the U.S. Justice Department is said to be considering, again, whether to charge WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for his role in the disclosure of hundreds of thousands of classified documents, a new documentary seeks to shed new light on the man himself. Risk is basically a companion piece or prologue to Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary CitizenFour about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The Snowden saga began to unfold as Poitras was doing her deep dive into Assange. Serendipitous, for sure, because CitizenFour tells a stronger story and is, by far, the better film.
The most remarkable thing about Risk – and CitizenFour– is the unprecedented access that Poitras managed to get over the course of several years, beginning in 2010. Though she doesn’t appear on camera in the film (since she’s planted firmly behind it), Poitras does express her own amazement at the access, saying, in voiceover from her production journal: “It’s a mystery why [Julian] trusts me, because I don’t think he likes me.” Whatever his reasons, the project allowed Poitras to capture, in real time, a confluence of critical events in the complex and murky world of cyber-security and ‘hacktivism’, from the court martial of Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning in 2013 to Russia’s alleged cyber-meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections. It’s intriguing stuff to bear witness to, especially considering the drama is far from over.
Risk isn’t merely about cyber-stuff though. It’s about Assange himself, and hypocrisy. As he sits in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London where he’s been holed up since 2012 to dodge criminal prosecution, Assange talks in circles to justify his actions. He claims to value principles and the risks people take to uphold them – yet he brushes aside allegations of personal transgressions, like sexual assault. His ego appears far bigger than his professed desire to uncover government cover-ups and data breaches. Snowden comes off way more sympathetic in CitizenFour than Assange does in Risk, which lacks the tension and high-stakes drama that made CitizenFour particularly thought-provoking. Assange is simply not very likeable, and his cyber crusade is greatly diminished by his smarmy attitude. Additionally, the Risk narrative loses focus a bit too often as it shifts the spotlight now and again to members of Assange’s inner circle. They include Jacob Appelbaum, an independent journalist and Wikileaks hacker who collaborated with Poitras (apparently, in more ways than one) before getting hit with his own set of sexual abuse allegations, and Sarah Harrison, Assange’s confidante and maybe-girlfriend who takes the greatest risks of all – helping to get Edward Snowden from Hong Kong to Russia as law enforcement was closing in. She’s an enigma too, and deserving of her own documentary. Perhaps that’s next.