Director: Laura Poitras
Running Time: 1:34
Release Date: 5/5/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | May 4, 2017
During an audio clip from the filmmaker's production journal, director Laura Poitras says that she didn't want her documentary about Julian Assange to focus on his contradictions. She immediately follows that statement by saying that the entire film has become about them.
As portrayed in Risk, it's difficult to find some actual contradictions about the man. In public, Assange is accused of sexual assault by two different women in Sweden. In private, he rails about a "radical feminist" conspiracy against him, despite the protests of his attorney, who says that she hopes he'll keep such outlandish comments to himself. Even knowing that there's a camera on him, he keeps harping on the issue. There's a level of misogyny and egotism on display in that private moment that, well, really makes one wonder if the man has been hiding in the Ecuador embassy in London since 2012, not to avoid false charges, but for the obvious reason that one evades criminal prosecution.
In public, that ego is a constant. He appears on television, with the logo of his organization dripping away in the backdrop, and keeps a calm, cool demeanor, as if his confidence in himself goes beyond all human measurement. In private, he has an assistant call the U.S. Department of State, requesting that Assange immediately be put on the line with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Some State Department documents that WikiLeaks has obtained have, ironically, been hacked, and their publication to the web—without any redactions of names—is imminent.
When he does get someone on the phone, he repeatedly points out that this is the State Department's problem, not WikiLeaks' (despite the fact that the organization was hacked) and definitely not his. The way his eyes blink without ceasing makes one think he knows the trouble this will cause him.
Clinton, of course, doesn't take the call, but there's something to the fact that he thought, even if optimistically, he could talk to her directly. Maybe if she had answered the phone and confirmed Assange's status in his own mind, the most recent election would have gone a bit differently.
On the face of it, there aren't many contradictions here, although one significant one is Assange's public stance of demanding openness and transparency from governments while maintaining layers of cover for himself, his organization, and those who believe as he does. The major contradiction to which Poitras refers in that journal entry seems to be in her mind. That's not to suggest that she has imagined it. It's to say that the most important contradiction for her appears to exist in her opinion of the man. On a political and/or ideological level, she agrees with Assange's work, goals, and principles. On a personal level, she finds his many, many flaws to be irreconcilable with her beliefs of how good people behave.
She doesn't disguise that opinion of the man, but she doesn't really need to do so, either. The film gives us the opportunity to be a fly on the wall in Assange's dealings, with limited commentary from Poitras and few updates on her current status in the eyes of the U.S. government (It's not good, to say the least, if we go by a recorded FBI meeting about her, in which they openly call her "an anti-American filmmaker" and suggest that she's a threat).
The approach is the right one. It's fascinating to see this work being done, to observe the game of politics that must be played in order to do that work, and to follow Assange in his flight from justice—or his justified maneuvering to avoid persecution, depending on one's perspective on him. It also, though, gives him plenty of opportunities to show the kind of man he actually is behind the work. By the end, one imagines that Poitras has edited the film with the mantra about giving a man enough rope in mind. He does the work for her.
Poitras followed Assange for six years to obtain this footage, beginning in 2010, shortly after WikiLeaks published footage of a 2007 airstrike by the U.S. Army that killed at least a dozen people, including two journalists working for Reuters. If you've done the math, yes, the film also covers Assange and WikiLeaks' activity during the 2016 presidential election. If a clip of Assange deciding only to go after the Clinton campaign doesn't make it to a Congressional hearing in the near future, there's something fundamentally wrong with our government under the sway of her opponent and the political party he haphazardly joined—and which doltishly embraced him.
In Assange's mind, the decision to go after Clinton, while leaving her opponent alone (despite certainty that there must be dirt on him somewhere), was one of principle. In reality, it was a way to best mitigate the potential risks to WikiLeaks and himself, since he was under criminal investigation by the U.S. government for his involvement in the release of that aforementioned video. Clinton, he assumes, will be bad for him (There was that attempt to call her, too, which must have stung his ego a bit). Her opponent is something of a wild card on the matter, so he takes his chances.
For all of his principles, though, this is a man who, during a lengthy monologue to the camera, spends more time discussing how best to negotiate those principles in the short term in order to succeed in the long term. He has it worked out almost as a math problem. If we take what we see from him in the way he reacts to those charges in Sweden, though, it comes across as more of a way to deflect responsibility for his actions. At the least, it's a good excuse when his actions seem to go against his principles. It's for the "greater good," after all.
Call Assange a principled rogue, or call him a dangerous force in the world. Call him contradictory, or call him an outright hypocrite. Risk doesn't want to put a label on the man, but it gives us as good a picture of him as we're likely to get. He's not a sympathetic enough figure to call him tragic, but if he were a tragic figure, it would be in the final irony of the results of his involvement in the 2016 election. In ignoring his principles, he may have doomed himself in both the short term and the long term.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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