7 05 2017

One must balance principles with pragmatism if the former is to survive intense scrutiny, opines Julian Assange at the start of Laura Poitras’ “Risk,” a documentary with unprecedented access to the WikiLeaks founder at the height of his early ’10s infamy. It’s an ironic, fitting statement from a man who sees much of his work for international transparency eclipsed by charges of sexual assault. Rather than applying the principles of radical openness to his own life, Assange embarks on a scorched earth campaign to shift blame onto his accusers rather than accept any personal responsibility.

Poitras casts a suspicious eye towards Assange’s behavior, a stance likely influenced by allegations of sexual harassment and abuse leveled against fellow “hacktivist” Jacob Appelbaum after their brief affair ended. Appelbaum features prominently in both “Citizenfour” and the opening chapters of “Risk,” and the impassioned, largely unfiltered speeches he gives railing against online censorship demonstrates some form of support for the ideas. But can we excuse abusive behavior in men whose core ideas and values we primarily support? (It’s not exclusively a male problem, though cultural and institutional sexism tend to relegate these unchecked ego issues to a single gender.)

Poitras’ film bears the marks of intense internal deliberation in its very fiber; the version of “Risk” most audiences will experience differs dramatically from the version initially presented at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It’s a gripping examination of the double-edged sword forged by the cult of personality. On the one hand, complex dialectic struggles between freedom and control on personal and international scales become much more comprehensible when distilled into a human essence. Assange. Snowden. Appelbaum. They move these theoretical issues into the realm of the real by giving them a face. Yet people are complicated, and they lack consistency. Anything less than perfect representation of an ideology seemingly grants permission to throw the baby out with the bathwater in this day and age.

How much of the contradiction are we willing to accept? Poitras, with her typical ambiguity and performative neutrality, leaves her final verdict largely unspoken. Assange, as she makes clear by describing their recent communications, is unwilling to accept anything other than full support from her. In the film’s oddest and most telling sequence, “Born This Way”-era Lady Gaga comes to visit Assange at his Ecuadorian embassy asylum in London for a digital camera-filmed interview. At this point, Assange’s alleged sexual misconduct was widely known, and it’s interesting to try and square Gaga’s fawning appearance with her more recent activism on behalf of sexual assault survivors. (In fairness, she appears to have only come public about her own assault in 2014, so her process of healing could have been at a very different stage.)

Yet by the end of “Risk,” the figure I found myself most examining was Poitras herself. The documentarian makes no secret that she is a character in the drama herself, as much as she took strenuous efforts to avoid embedding herself in the narrative. I’ve written positively about her entire body of work and admire her principled stands in both Bush and Obama’s presidencies. So her slapdash postscript about Assange’s role in the 2016 presidential election frustrated me to no end. For a filmmaker as rigorous as Poitras, this section feels like the journalistic equivalent of the shrug emoji (¯\_(ツ)_/¯).

Since Poitras took her time distributing “Risk” to the world, global events threatened to make the work as presented at Cannes largely irrelevant. She had to acknowledge the changes or face the immediate dating of a documentary she spent years filming. Her attitude towards Assange’s intervention against Hillary Clinton is best described as lackadaisical. She never interrogates whether this harmonizes with Assange’s philosophy for WikiLeaks, and the evidence she presents that he could be acting in accordance with the Kremlin comes solely from a CSPAN clip of Adam Schiff grilling James Comey in a Congressional hearing. Poitras couldn’t be more absent from this section if she tried.

There’s still plenty we don’t know about the ongoing investigation into WikiLeaks and Russian interference in the election. New information could expose my current beliefs about it as completely wrongheaded. But Poitras’ tune changes drastically when she forcedly brooches the subject in “Risk,” and it does make me question if I have fallen into the same trap she did with Assange: the trap of buying into a personality so greatly that you don’t fully examine their ethical stances. B



2 responses

8 05 2017

I was going to give this a shot mostly because We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks remains the most fascinating documentary I’ve seen.
And then I read about the p.s. on the presidential election, and chose to steer clear. Thanks!

20 05 2017
Risk | Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

[…] Courtesy of: Marshall and the Movies, Variety, Rotten […]

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