REVIEW: Risk

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.

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REVIEW: The Fifth Estate

8 09 2015

Ripping the story from the headlines seems to be the most compelling action in “The Fifth Estate,” a fictionalization of WikiLeaks’ history from director Bill Condon and writer Josh Singer.   The film feels irrelevant in the wake of Alex Gibney’s documentary “We Steal Secrets,” a more thrilling and intelligent treatment of these people and ideas that does not even have to resort to fictionalization or melodrama.

The film begins modestly (ha!) with a brief history of worldwide communications, from hieroglyphs to Guttenberg’s printing press all the way to the iPad newsstand.  Then, it proceeds to cut between the WikiLeaks team led by anarchist Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the U.S. government’s response to their destabilizing revelations.

It might have been better off just focusing on its titular estate rather than including subplots involving the second (government) and fourth (press) estates; the tension between the old guard of reporting at institutions like The Guardian and the WikiLeaks “hacktivist” style of citizen journalism feels like a topic for an entirely different film.  Sure, this is an excuse to bring in an ensemble of supporting characters portrayed by talented actors like Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Mackie, Peter Capaldi, and David Thewlis, these accomplished thespians are unable to do much to elevate the material.

As Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg take steps to increase worldwide transparency, their tendency to think more about the information and less about the people leads to conflict.  Plenty of innocent people are taken as collateral damage by WikiLeaks, and their servers offer flimsy protection for the whistleblowers who dare to release sensitive information.  Assange’s personality gets in the way of the story he pushes – a worry that seems to inspire caution in the next major leaker, Edward Snowden, as shown in Laura Poitras’ documentary “Citizenfour.”

Condon uneasily balances Singer’s script that cannot decide whether to focus on who they are or what they did.  For the former, at least Cumberbatch nails Assange’s vocal cadences.  For the latter, though, “The Fifth Estate” cannot even turn one of the most important events of the decade into compelling cinema. Even with one of the newest tricks in the book, adding an M83 song for dramatic impact, the action falls flat.

When the film awkwardly acknowledges its own shortcomings in its odd finale, it feels almost like the creative team saying sorry.  Apology accepted, I guess?  C2stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (October 3, 2014)

3 10 2014

We Steal SecretsOscar-winner Alex Gibney isn’t called the hardest working man in documentaries without reason.  It’s not uncommon for him to churn out more than one feature-length film in a given year, and unlike Woody Allen, they all manage to be exceptionally good.  His first of two 2013 docs, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” more than hits the sweet spot.

Gibney tackles the politically charged and highly controversial subject of Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks, a site committed to publishing information that powerful figures would rather be kept under wraps.  But unlike Gibney’s films tackling a pretty clear-cut right and wrong, such as his chronicle of Elliot Spitzer in “Client 9,” the ethics and morality of “We Steal Secrets” are incredibly murky.  This masterful steering through foggy gray area makes the film a perfect pick for my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

The documentary also provides a great blend of two very different narrative styles, the individual portrait and the issues-based landscape of their broader intellectual context.  Gibney gives us plenty of biographical information on Assange, shedding light on his background and thus allowing us to better make sense of him.  Yet even with all this knowledge, he still remains a question mark.  That is not to insult Gibney’s filmmaking but rather to complement it – he casts Assange as neither hero nor villain, simply a man who has made choices that we can interpret in a variety of ways.

As Assange fundamentally changes the nature of geopolitics, it is certainly a fact that he pushes the world in the direction of being more transparent.  Gibney fills “We Steal Secrets” with commentators on both sides of the privacy debate, with a passionate and well-informed case being made for each.  Ultimately, the choice of whether secrets are good, necessary, or justifiable is left up to the viewer.  And after Gibney’s powerful documentary, not forming some kind of philosophy is simply not an option.  One can only hope he has something similar in mind about Edward Snowden…





Random Factoid #508

18 12 2010

Eek, I’m really scrounging for factoids … and not finding much.  Honestly, a part of me just wants to say that I caught a really strange pop culture reference in “How Do You Know” today.  On Reese Witherspoon’s mirror, there are all sorts of inspirational quotes about courage and other virtues.  Then, there’s a quote from KeKe Palmer’s song “Bottoms Up.”  You got some swagger, better let ’em know; you got some swagger, better let ’em show.  It belongs right next to Shakespeare and Biblical passages.

(If you want to listen to the line, it’s around 2:10 in the video.)

Yet another part of me wants to tell you that my family’s Christmas tree was dubbed “The Avatar Tree” by me today after these horrific white orb lights we bought from Target make it look like those little dandelion spirits of the forest.  My mom and I were going to dismantle the tree and replace them with new lights, but we decided to live with “The Avatar Tree” rather than waste two hours of our life for a tree that would like pretty for a week.

Or perhaps I’ll just complain about how peeved I am with the ticket-taker at AMC Studio 30, who won’t stop eyeing me as if I’m a 13-year-old trying to sneak into an R-rated movie.  I showed you my ID once, I’M 18 YEARS OLD!

Maybe I’ll just cop out and post this funny cartoon I found thanks to /Film:

Speaking of WikiLeaks, has anyone noticed the resemblance???  It seems pretty obvious who’s going to play Julian Assange in the WikiLeaks movie.  Future Oscar-winning performance right here.

NPH Assange

I’m dog-beat, and this running around in circles trying to entertain you with a new factoid is about the best I can muster right now.  I’ve come up with stories, opinions, and all sorts of other stuff for 507 straight days – today is a sort of reprieve where I just use this post for an open page to express all the stuff running around in my mind.