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.┬áBut 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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