Risk, Laura Poitras’ documentary about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, is what happens when an artist-activist invests her passions in a ravaged cause. The ravaging, in this case, was inflicted by Assange himself, who proved steadily less heroic over the six years in which Poitras filmed him.
As she recounts in her occasional, diary-like narration, Poitras—who also made Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning 2014 documentary about Edward Snowden—approached Assange in 2010, after WikiLeaks released thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables as well as secret video footage of a helicopter crew gunning down civilians in Iraq.
Those materials leaked by Pvt. Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning, who spent years in an Army prison for his act, put WikiLeaks on the map and drew Poitras to Assange as a figure willing to take enormous risks in order to change the world. But then, as we see in the film, Assange is charged with sexual assault in Sweden; to avoid extradition, he takes shelter in the London embassy of Ecuador, which has granted him asylum; a coterie of worshipful aides serves his needs; the paranoia runs deep (sometimes justifiably), as does the grandiosity. As Poitras tells us in a voice-over narration, a half-hour in, “This is not the film I thought I was making,” adding, “I thought I could ignore the contradictions,” but the contradictions “are becoming the story.”
Poitras screened an earlier version of Risk at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2016, prior to the latest twist in the Assange saga: the Russian government’s hacking of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and President Vladimir Putin ordering the leaking of thousands of the campaign’s emails, through WikiLeaks, for the purpose of helping Donald Trump win the November election. Subsequently, Poitras spent months revising her film for release this Friday. Just last week, she twice postponed press reviews to work in more updates, including CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s recent accusation that WikiLeaks is not a news publication subject to First Amendment protections but rather a nonstate intelligence agency hostile to U.S. interests.
The film, as it now stands, recites these charges, but it’s unclear how Poitras regards them. After showing a news clip of FBI Director James Comey telling a congressional committee that Russia used a “cut-out” organization—a third party—to funnel Clinton’s files to WikiLeaks, Poitras inserts a title card that reads, “Assange denies his source is a state actor.” But this skirts the issue: We’ve just seen Comey say that WikiLeaks didn’t get the stuff from a state actor directly, but that a state actor—namely, Putin’s Russia—provided it to the person who gave it to WikiLeaks. Assange’s response is a classic case of what journalists call a “non-denial denial.” But Poitras leaves it there.
At one point, as if reading from a diary, Poitras says that she no longer trusts Assange. She also says that a personal breach occurred when she decided not to give Snowden’s documents (which she obtained while making this film) to WikiLeaks, a move that Assange—in a text to her, which she quotes—considered a “betrayal.”
But what specifically bred Poitras’ distrust of Assange? The sex charges; the Russia connection; his blooming paranoia; the sense, gleaned from several in Assange’s entourage (we see it on the faces of his lawyers and advisers, as they try to debrief him on his legal and PR troubles) that he’s a narcissistic asshole; all of the above? It isn’t clear.
Certainly she shouldn’t have been surprised by any of it. Alex Gibney’s 2013 documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, exposed much of Assange’s weirdness and deceit. Back in 2011, not long after Poitras started her project, James Ball, a former WikiLeaks staffer, wrote an article in The Guardian (which had published much of WikiLeaks’ material), explaining that he’d left the organization in part because of Assange’s cult-like obsessions, and in part because one of its senior associates, a Russian self-styled “peace activist” named Israel Shamir, supplied raw documents, which WikiLeaks had obtained, to the interior ministry of Belarus, one of Moscow’s most dictatorial allies. Also, in 2012, Assange hosted an interview show, broadcast by the Russian television network RT, which serves as Putin’s propaganda channel. Long before the 2016 election, then, it should have been clear to anyone with eyes that WikiLeaks—which may once have been dedicated to truth and transparency—had degenerated into a Kremlin tool.
We never do learn when, why, or to what degree Poitras changed her mind about Assange.
Nor does Poitras confront, though she does show others mentioning, the many ethical-political questions that Assange and WikiLeaks raise. News editors are still mulling whether their eager dissemination of the Clinton hacks played into the hands of a Russian plot to influence the 2016 election—and, if it did, how they should weigh the balance between scoops and sovereignty the next time. Most people who are honest about the dilemmas of the digital age are at least aware of the tensions between security and freedom. Too often, Assange acts as if there are no such tensions, and Poitras abets him in this.
In one scene in Risk, a journalist asks Assange whether WikiLeaks doesn’t give “bad guys” a handout. Assange replies, “No, no more than roads allow terrorists to travel.” This is a lousy analogy; if examined even a little, it makes an argument against Assange’s position. After all, roads are full of traffic signals, speed-limit postings, toll booths, cameras, the occasional barricade, and police who can stop violators of the rules, demand their ID cards, issue tickets, and even slap on handcuffs. Governments are far more intrusive on roads than they are on the internet.
Poitras’ evolving perspective on Assange might have made for a fascinating probe into the complex relationship between an artist-journalist and her subject, with its rich ambiguities and (to use her own word) risk—a cinematic version of what Janet Malcolm has often done in essays. Poitras is a very talented artist: Though I had problems with the content of her Snowden documentary, it was a deft, sometimes gripping piece of filmmaking; I would describe her 2016 installation on surveillance, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in similar terms.
But she came into the Assange project as a collaborator as well as a chronicler, got too close to her subject and his associates (admitting, in a voice-over, that she had a brief affair with one of them, Jacob Appelbaum, who was also later accused of sexual abuse), and—once doubts arose about his motives and methods and the consequences of his actions—she didn’t know how to process them. Turning against Assange all together would feel like joining forces with the feds; yet celebrating him unabashedly would be naïve. So she’s built a ramshackle construct, tacking caveats and qualifiers to her original script, letting the awkward bits go without comment or labeling them “contradictions” without explaining, much less resolving, them. This isn’t the churning of ambiguities; it’s a muddle, a mess.