A film more than half a decade in the making, Laura Poitras’ Risk offers a frustratingly, yet understandably vague portrait of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. He has quite literally changed the way we think about information sharing in the digital age, and because of this has become a subject of much controversy. Poitras’ does her best to help us understand what could drive a man to put himself in such a position, as well as the longterm goals of his vision, but even her skilled craftsmanship as a filmmaker can only do so much with the material she is given.
Poitras’ began working on Risk in the months leading up to 2011, long before she would start filming her Academy Award winning Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour. The majority of the interviews that appear in the film were conducted around this time, which creates something of a time capsule for everyone involved. We see a cunning and brash Assange, one not yet dogged by accusations of sexual misconduct, amassing a team of helpers to craft a bold new world through the efforts of WikiLeaks. You can almost sense the giddiness in his voice when asked to details his plans, and you can tell from the crooked grin sneaking out from the corners of his mouth that he loves the attention the lens has to offer. Assange wants us to understand him, if only so that we might join his efforts.
When all this was happening, back before the world became obsessed with Assange as a person and still saw him as some kind of figurehead for the digital age, WikiLeaks promoted an image of openness and democracy that many were quick to embrace. Their efforts went against conventional governmental and journalistic ethics, offering free access to all information to anyone who wanted without worry over whether or not there would be any fall out. Risk squashes any doubt Assange viewed himself as something of a Robin Hood for those cut off from classified information, with the man himself going so far as to claim the needs and desires of the world come before his own. He believes he is a modern super hero and that the anonymity provided by the internet is his secret weapon. It’s admirable, if not flawed by ego, and for a moment you start to believe in the vision of transparency Assange claims to promote.
Of course, this is not the vision of WikiLeaks has today. The brand is more closely with hackers than freedom fighters. As the film rolls into theaters Assange is currently embroiled in controversy surrounding the 2016 US Presidential election and what, if any, influence he may have aided Russian operatives in achieving. These questions are presented briefly near the end of the film, but concrete answers are nowhere to be found.
Despite being someone every major government would like five minutes alone with, Assange is ultimately his own worst enemy. Just as soon as you begin to believe in Assange controversy ensues and your perspective of his self-proclaimed selflessness is forced to change. Upon learning of the accusations brought against him, Assange begins to retreat from the openness he once presented Poitras, and in doing so points the blame at a feminist conspiracy he believes is out to get him. This allows Poitras to take a step back from the situation at hand and look at the bigger, much uglier picture of sexual assault in the digital landscape. She highlights other WikiLeaks members who have been accused of wrongdoing, including someone she herself briefly dated during production of the film, as well as the tech industry at large. The lack of transparency from both Assange and Wikileaks in response to these incidents reveals the first of many double-standards that come to light over the course of the film, which creates a sort of domino effect that pushes Poitras and the world at large further and further from the film’s subject.
The growing disconnect between Poitras and her subject creates impenetrable barriers for storytelling that derail Risk fairly early on. If you listen closely I swear you can actually hear her losing faith and patience in Assange as the film progresses. What should be a series of compelling moments and intimate interviews detailing the various highs and lows captured over nearly ten years of filming a group known for leaking sensitive data to the masses quickly devolves into Assange spouting his beliefs on life and where the world is headed is something is not done. When that isn’t happening, Poitras lives life as a fly on the wall, capturing quiet moments of people studying emails and making phone calls. It’s kind of like watching an office work without knowing what they’re working on or why someone decided you needed to see it, and it makes for an increasingly maddening experience despite a runtime under 90-minutes in length.
If Risk accomplishes anything it is forcing us to question the impact of Wikileaks actions over time. The moments captured early in the film, some during Barack Obama’s first term as president, feel like major turning points in history as they unfold on screen. We see the Wikileaks team buzzing with cautious excitement as they details the thousands of pages of documents they plan to leak and all the information contain, but watching these moments happen more than five years after the fact it’s hard to say how much of a difference their release really made. This is not meant to discredit the necessity of their initial release, but if Assange’s longterm goal is to change the world for the better then we have to ask ourselves how, if at all, his efforts to date have impacted our day to day lives. Risk doesn’t have an answer.