In the glib popular imagination, we know who the whistleblowers and informants of modern times are, or we think we do. Chelsea Manning, formerly Bradley Manning, is the victim, naïve and in over her head. Edward Snowden is the savvy, saintly pragmatist. Julian Assange? He’s just the devil.
“Risk” is Laura Poitras’s dance with the devil, a documentary seven years in the making that began as one thing and became another. Debuting at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and updated in light of recent events, it’s a failed film whose failure makes it interesting; it’s less a portrait of Assange than an account of how the scales fell from one admirer’s eyes as she looked at him.
Poitras, of course, is best known for “Citizenfour,” her 2014 Oscar-winning documentary that put us in the Hong Kong hotel room with Snowden as he leaked thousands of NSA documents and alerted us to the spies in our lives. That event pops up briefly in the middle of “Risk,” reminding us of what whistleblowing looks like when it’s less driven by ego.
By contrast, Assange is very much the star of his own movie, and WikiLeaks, the site he founded, seems as much his personal middle finger to The Man as it is an idealistic clearinghouse dedicated to freedom of information at all costs. Poitras began filming in 2010 and captures Assange and his chief lieutenants as they spar with the State Department in the days leading up to the online dump of US diplomatic cables.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the group forcibly pushes for open, uncompromised Internet access for the peoples of the North African revolutions via the Tor Project. It’s all very heady, and when Assange tells Poitras, “If you’re not fighting for the things you care for and every day is another gone by, you are losing,” you can feel the filmmaker nodding her head in agreement.
It’s not so much the accusations of sexual assault by two Swedish women that seem to stop Poitras in her tracks as Assange’s response to them. A damning sequence has an appalled female lawyer trying to rein in Assange as he explains about the radical feminist conspiracy he’s convinced is trying to bring him down. “These women will be reviled forever,” he says, and if that’s not our first glimpse of monomania, it’s the most telling.
(Assange isn’t the only WikiLeaks-related figure to have been accused of sexual misconduct; Tor Project leader Jacob Appelbaum has had charges leveled at him as well, and while “Risk” doesn’t probe them in detail, a sequence in which he lectures Tunisian women on online security by comparing it to unprotected sex is more than a little cringe-inducing.)
Poitras never appears on camera but she ruminates ruefully on the soundtrack. “This is not the film I thought I was making,” she admits. “The contradictions are becoming the story.”
We see members of WikiLeaks, an organization dedicated to fighting secrecy, burn their notes and have conversations on notepads. Unlike “Citizenfour,” “Risk” makes a case that character is stronger than idealism or ideology — that who you are will always trump what you hope to achieve.
You can argue with that, but seeing the cult of personality that swirls around Assange — watching his acolytes cut his hair and socially groom him as if he were the group silverback — is a testimony to just how much WikiLeaks was about him as it was about freedom of information.
“Risk” is around in 2012, when Assange takes asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London after the UK Supreme Court ruled he could be deported to Sweden to answer the assault charges (and then, presumably, to the United States to answer for other things). His visitors at the embassy include Lady Gaga, who is fawning and fatuous and not remotely up to the intellectual occasion; it’s the one time Assange and the viewer may feel united in contempt. Then the Snowden affair intervenes and Poitras heads off to Hong Kong. Assange never forgave her for not cutting WikiLeaks in on the NSA dump.
When she returns in 2016, Assange has been living in the embassy for four years, and he’s obsessed with the US presidential election, seeing Hillary Clinton as a bigger threat — to him, of course — than the “unknown” Donald Trump. Poitras tracks WikiLeaks’ release of the e-mails that many say helped to bring down the Clinton campaign and led to the election of Trump, and she does everything but draw a line between the two with a big, angry Sharpie.
Did Assange get the e-mails from Russian hackers? Poitras asks him. He dodges.
“I was in a lucky position. The only way to act, to make the world the way you want it, is to act globally,” he says. He sounds like a practiced politician. “Risk” is a film broken by disillusionment and all the more necessary for it.
Directed by Laura Poitras. Starring Julian Assange. At Coolidge Corner Theatre. 87 minutes. Unrated (as PG: language, fallen idols).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.