Three years ago, Laura Poitras released the Edward Snowden documentary ‘Citizenfour‘ to great acclaim. It was a true-life thriller that couldn’t be more potent or relevant. Now she returns with a portrait of notorious Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. While it’s fascinating filmmaking, the movie is also not as easy to grapple with or as overtly entertaining. ‘Risk’ is as bizarre, confused and complicated as its subject.
Obviously, there is plenty of material out there on Julian Assange already – countless posts, endless pages of print, Alex Gibney’s documentary ‘We Steal Secrets’, and that movie with Benedict Cumberbatch that you already forgot about. There are equally as many opinions on Assange: hero, criminal, opportunist, activist, rapist, etc. At some point in Laura Poitras’ documentary, you’ll find a moment to confirm any opinion you might have about him. The filmmaker spent years with Assange, beginning the project before her Snowden adventure and continuing to through the rape allegations, asylum, vilification, and his unfortunate role in the recent U.S. election. She occasionally provides voiceover of her point of view on Assange and the situation, and clearly struggled with why she’s profiling the man and what he has grown to represent. She doesn’t really come to particular concrete conclusions or offer any easy answers for how she thinks viewers should respond to the controversial character. Then again, Assange is so complicated and confused as a person, that’s likely the only rational response.
Apparently, when the film premiered in Cannes last year, it lacked Poitras’ personal voiceover and opinions about Assange (as well as any of the election material, obviously). It was a more observational piece, allowing Assange to hang and prop himself up all on his own. Undoubtedly, the more personal approach to the final cut helps the doc, but also makes the film feel a bit confused and compromised at times. It’s clear that their relationship was awkward at best, with Assange even seeming somewhat jealous of the filmmaker’s dalliance with Snowden and her refusal to share information. They grow to be even more estranged over the course of the production. Assange eventually becomes hostile and defensive, while Poitras makes it increasingly clear how disillusioned she’s become with the Wikileaks figurehead.
One thing that is abundantly clear by the end of the movie is that Assange is a misogynist. He speaks openly about a feminist conspiracy against him and demands that one woman working for Wikileaks embrace her femininity to properly sell a story for the website. It’s ugly to watch and obviously affected the filmmaker. She makes her discomfort known and her interest in even completing the project seems to change. What started as a documentary about a little internet activist challenging powerful government regimes gradually shifts into a study of how power corrupted Assange and fame revealed all his ugliest impulses. The film is increasingly difficult to watch as Assange spirals into an unlikable character and Poirtas struggles to justify continuing to give a man she disrespects a platform (even one to hang himself with).
However, as difficult as ‘Risk’ can be to watch, it’s endlessly fascinating. Much like how ‘Citizenfour’ felt like a paranoid thriller in documentary form, ‘Risk’ plays out as a painful character study of a troubled man. The documentary has a fascinating trainwreck quality and also a certain level of empathy for the troubled subject and the conflicted director. The score by Jeremy Flower (‘Tetro’) is a nightmarish drone that slithers under your skin, not unlike the effect Assange has on viewers spending this much candid time with him.
By the time the manipulative internet icon demands that the filmmaker meet with him to discuss a more mutually beneficial approach to the documentary after seeing a rough cut, you just want this toxic relationship to end. Mercifully, the film and the relationship cuts off shortly afterwards. Audiences will have to stumble away from ‘Risk’ with the sense of confused disgust and morbid fascination that Laura Poitras must have felt every time she took a break from shooting this multi-year project. On that visceral level, it’s likely one of the most honest and revealing pieces ever made about Julian Assange. Whether or not it’s worth spending 90 minutes experiencing those uncomfortable emotions is something every viewer will have to decide for him- or herself, especially if you feel that this odd online celebrity has already gotten far more attention than he deserves.