In what is essentially a prequel to her Oscar-winning portrait of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, “Citizenfour,” director Laura Poitras leverages incredible access to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange into an intimate and somewhat unwieldy portrait of the world’s single most controversial media personality. Some five years in the making, “Risk” ironically feels like a bit of a rush job, presumably back-burnered in 2013 when her subject presumably handed her an even bigger scoop. Though one can imagine Assange impatiently wasting away under political asylum at London’s Ecuadorian embassy for years while Poitras went off to focus on that story, her long-overdue Assange portrait is all the more essential now that “Citizenfour” has validated much of what WikiLeaks stands for. Even so, the American public seems to have an allergic reaction to Assange, making this a far riskier prospect for any distributor hoping to repeat that film’s $3.5 million success.
Whereas Poitras described “Citizenfour” as the third part of a trilogy about America post 9/11, “Risk” reveals the huge catch she’d lined up to be her next project following 2010’s “The Oath”: Though the film withholds how she managed to do it exactly, Poitras secured the confidence of Assange and his team, getting permission to bring her cameras into the brain center of his publishing operations — something that other documentary helmers, including “We Steal Secrets” director Alex Gibney, fell short of achieving in their own Assange projects. Whereas that forced those other filmmakers to be all the more rigorous in how they crafted their creative “write-arounds” (while also allowing them to be more openly critical of their subject), Poitras falls back on the fact that she had access to the man himself, as well as such key allies as lawyer (and sometime girlfriend) Sarah Harrison and WikiLeaks technology expert Jacob Appelbaum.
Shot in a style that naturally lends itself to the conspiratorial aesthetic of modern-day thrillers (which, of course, have borrowed documentary techniques for added grit and authenticity, dating as far back as “The Battle of Algiers”), “Risk” opens with a scene of Julian Assange going undercover. Poitras observes him applying colored contacts as the finishing touch to a disguise that involves dyed orange hair, tough-guy goatee and faux ear gauges, which gives the impression that we’re watching a genuine spy movie — and in a sense we are. Assange not only divulges classified information to the world, but is faced with hefty espionage charges by the United States. Poitras is there in the room hours before “Cablegate,” as Harrison attempts to get Hillary Clinton on the phone, and later, as Assange does a semantic dance with a high-ranking U.S. lawyer, convinced that the massive freedom-of-information coup could be the thing to break WikiLeaks.
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As exciting as it is to witness such world-changing negotiations happening first-hand, there’s something almost sinister in the way Assange plays to the media, whether it’s in the relatively public forum of a press conference or something more intimate, but still half-staged, such as this night-before “warning” to the Secretary of State’s office. He’s well aware of his own myth-building, but also has a smarmy way of interacting with women — and the fact that there’s one behind the camera makes his occasional asides to Laura feel as if he’s disrespecting us by extension. (His arrogance and misogyny become recurring bugaboos as the film progresses, especially when faced with the possibility of being extradited to Sweden to face rape charges.)
The diplomatic cable dump is huge, of course, but not quite enough to hang a documentary on, and Poitras sticks around, shadowing members of Assange’s team — but especially Appelbaum — as they do their modern-day Robin Hood routine: stealing (information) from the rich to give to the poor(ly informed). In the most galvanizing example of WikiLeaks in action, she joins Appelbaum in Egypt, where he speaks on a panel, calling out tech companies such as TE Data and Nokia that colluded with Mubarak’s regime, either by censoring the Internet or blasting propaganda text messages to the country’s citizens, but are now posing as allies of the revolution.
Whether it’s Bradley Manning’s arrest or “the Spy Files” (a game-changing exposé of the global mass surveillance industry released in 2011), it’s one bombshell after another as Poitras follows WikiLeaks’ information crusade, which poses considerable challenges in terms of how to present the sheer volume of activity spiraling around Assange. She opts for a curious 10-chapter structure, dividing her five-year survey (three of which fall into a black hole as she focused on “Citizenfour”) into segments introduced by giant Roman numerals. As the story develops, however, it seems to focus more on Assange and less on the things he stands for — which, conspiracy theorists might argue, was the sinister intent of whoever dredged up the Swedish case about his alleged sexual misconduct: to distract Assange’s energy and the world’s attention away from crucial stories WikiLeaks could be breaking. (And the idea that someone like Lady Gaga might hope to fill the gap, as she attempts to do in a surreal, solidarity-oriented visit to the Ecuadorian embassy, is downright ludicrous.)
Given the breakneck cycle of current events, what “Risk” brings to light is practically ancient history, and yet, given the fact that Assange has been holed up and little seen by the public since summer 2012, there’s real value in reminding the world of his ongoing plight. Still, it’s hard to stomach the nearly-four-year lacuna near the end of the film, when Poitras suddenly stopped documenting Assange — which feels all the more unusual considering the mounting familiarity he displays to her just before, allowing herself to become a character in the film itself. This coziness (which she actively questions, including an FBI recording that refers to her as “an anti-United States” documentarian) begins to suggest a possible conflict of interest on her part: Are we watching a work of journalism or a glorified fan film? Running a short 84 minutes, “Risk” offers considerable insights into Assange, but seems to omit as much as it reveals.