However you look at Julian Assange — radical hero, martyr, Trumpist sellout, probable rapist, victim of his cult of personality — there’s something in Laura Poitras’ documentary Risk to confirm your point of view. You might not think there would be much left to say on this subject, particularly after Alex Gibney’s documentary We Steal Secrets, a fictional biopic and numerous books. But there is.
For one thing, Poitras began making this film before her much-celebrated Edward Snowden coming-out-to-the-world portrait, Citizenfour (2014), and had access to Assange as far back as 2011. (Perceiving that Gibney was fundamentally unsympathetic, Assange wanted to charge the director $1 million for interview rights; sensing an ally in Poitras, he apparently allowed her into his life for free — though his intuition was not entirely correct.) Risk at last premiered as a work-in-progress at Cannes last year, in a much different form. According to journalists who saw it then, that version was far less critical of Assange than this final cut, and lacked the probingly self-critical voice-over that Poitras has since added. In fact, Risk might have been better if Poitras had gone all the way and made a personal essay of a film about her ambivalent relationship with Assange, examining more fully the ways that the movie she wound up making is clearly not the one she intended.
This is not Citizenfour Part Two, though for both films Poitras gained intimate access to her subjects, especially here in long stretches of Assange’s house arrest. Citizenfour ran the risk of being written off by skeptics as an apologia for Snowden, even as propaganda on his behalf, but it was also a document of a journalistic scoop, shot as the news was shaking the world. Risk lacks that urgency; this is a more mediated piece, one weighted with self-doubt.
Risk does rehash some familiar WikiLeaks history, but for the most part Poitras assumes that viewers are familiar with Chelsea Manning and Snowden, as well as the basics of Assange’s refusal to go to Sweden to answer sexual-assault charges, fearing U.S. extradition. An acquaintance suggested to me that this might be Poitras’ first feminist film, indirectly devoted to exploring the abusive sexual actions of men like Assange and, to a lesser extent, encryption advocate Jacob Appelbaum (who also appears in Citizenfour).
Whether Assange is guilty of the crimes that he is accused of by two women in Sweden — to be clear, one of the woman states in Gibney’s documentary that she would never have made this a legal matter had he only been willing to take an HIV test — he’s certainly a class-A misogynist. Poitras exposes his casual contempt for feminists, a distaste that extends beyond his alleged victims to pretty much anyone who respects women’s rights. (We see his female lawyer try in vain to get him to restrain such sentiments.) Throughout the film, Assange keeps making troubling statements about feminists being out to get him, including a doozy regarding one of the Swedes opening a lesbian bar — as if that alone were proof she was lying or has some creepy radical agenda.
Oddly enough, the film that Risk most evokes is not a documentary. It’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1979 The Third Generation, a despairing examination of hippie hopes turned into terrorist violence ultimately designed to serve the state. Around the peak of Assange’s popularity, many pundits expressed bright hopes about the internet forming the basis of a newly politicized techno-counterculture that could combat global capitalism. These were also the days of the Arab Spring, and Poitras shows Appelbaum bravely inveighing against the censorship of Twitter at a panel featuring representatives of telecommunications companies in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt.
Poitras acknowledges in the film that she had a consensual relationship with Applebaum before he abused a friend of hers. He and Assange now seem like the kind of fake revolutionaries Fassbinder’s movie depicts. While both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have made threats to arrest Assange, Trump embraced WikiLeaks on the 2016 campaign trail. There’s not enough space in this review to go into the suspected links between WikiLeaks, Russia’s Putin government and the Trump campaign, but suffice to say there’s a strong possibility that Assange betrayed the hopes of high-profile progressive celebrity supporters such as M.I.A., Michael Moore and Lady Gaga (seen interviewing him in Risk). Twitter itself, defended by Appelbaum, has in the long run proved more useful for the far right than it has for the left.
Very shortly before the release of Risk, the U.S. government announced that it would pursue Assange’s arrest, so even Trump’s pro-WikiLeaks bluster hasn't helped Assange much. This all adds up to one of the bleakest films released so far in 2017. And though it could benefit from less hopping around in time and space, and it bears the scars of Poitras’ multiple edits — she showed one cut to Assange, who hated it — if you care about what’s happening to the internet and to global politics, it’s essential viewing.