Documentarian Laura Poitras is our nonfiction poet laureate of paranoia, a vérité surveyor of the global surveillance state who feels compelled to train her cameras on what’s really happening – in occupied war zones (My Country, My Country), Guantanamo P.O.W. trials (The Oath), the eye of NSA-whistleblowing shitstorms (the Oscar-winning Citizenfour). Even when she’s not earning enemy-of-the-state status via aiding and abetting Edward Snowden, there’s always a sense of personal danger hovering around her films as she displeases the powers that be; any or all of her movies might plausibly be called Risk.
But it’s telling that Poitras has assigned that particular name to her portrait of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Watch the doc, and you can see how the title could be referring to the chance one takes in fighting for transparency when information is a private currency and heavily protected commodity. Or that it could mean the gamble someone takes when a whiff of power becomes intoxicating and ideology slowly gets shoved into backseat (“Most people who have principled stances don’t last very long,” the subject says). Or that, in fact, it’s a nod to the hazard that filmmakers run when they get a little too close to a subject and lose their way. The title, like the movie, contains multitudes.
We get a glimpse of Assange in calling-the-shots mode (and a concurrent sense of queasiness) right from the beginning, when we’re privy to the hacker and his editor Sarah Harrison calling the State Department in 2011, warning the government that a number of classified documents are about to be released, unredacted, online. The more chuffed he gets over being unable to get Hillary Clinton on the phone, the more his “concern” starts to read as hubris: “We don’t have a problem,” he tells the federal lackey on the line, “you have a problem.” From there, Poitras begins flipping between locales and time frames, as fly-on-the-wall scenes of the WikiLeaks founder holding court with fellow subversives bleed into him conferring with lawyers about the 2010 sexual assault allegations that have become a part of his public-enemy mythology. (A sequence in which Julian jokes about the accusations making him a household name and flippantly suggesting monthly scandals may make you retch.)
Much of Risk runs the you-know-what of feeling like a sort of an all-access greatest hits-and-misses tour, ranging from Assange seeking sanctuary at the Ecuadorean embassy in London to avoid extradition to being interviewed by Lady Gaga, who tells the thin white hacktivist duke he “should be in a dirty t-shirt like a fucking rebel.” It’s all done with Poitras’ usual mix of journalistic rigor and conspiracy-thriller stylistics – Mr. Robot‘s Sam Esmail was a producer; composer Jeremy Flower’s thrumming, ominous score might have been lifted from a Fincher film – as well as self-referential flourishes via production-diary voiceovers and the passing mention of an anonymous informant contacting her. (That would be Snowden, and the call of history.)
But then your mind drifts back to a side trip to Cairo, where viewers were introduced to Jacob Appelbaum, the American hacker who boldly called out Egyptian telecom representatives for blocking Twitter. You remember a later shot of him hovering over a young woman in a Tor Project office, invading her personal space in a way that feels oddly aggressive as she sits at a laptop. And suddenly, Poitras is bringing up this gentleman’s own numerous bad-behavior allegations, and she mentions she was involved with Appelbaum personally, and that he was abusive to “someone close to me” and he became worried about what she would say. “This is not the film I thought I was making,” she says. The patterns that have been emerging now are, in her words, “becoming the story.”
Having not seen the original cut of Risk that Poitras premiered at Cannes in 2016, it’s tough to say how this new version – which involved the filmmaker adding the Appelbaum disclosure and less-than-desirable rumors and WikiLeaks dodgy involvement with the election – differs from her initial vision of the project. But what is obvious, even if you feel that Poitras never did quite figure out what film she’s ultimately made, is that you’re watching an essay on the many ways someone who speaks truth to power can also abuse it – personally, politically, through speech, actions and insinuations. Assange starts the doc as someone warning the U.S. government that they’ve been compromised. By the end, he’s telling his chronicler that the film is “a severe threat to my freedom and I’m forced to treat it accordingly.” The difference between those two men is damning.