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An Enlightening, Uneasy Portrait of Julian Assange in ‘Risk’

In the documentary about the WikiLeaks leader, filmed over seven years, director Laura Poitras uncovers a man of many contradictions. In doing so, she also reveals a lot about herself.

(Getty Images/Praxis Films/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Praxis Films/Ringer illustration)

"There are two contradictory myths about how we operate," wrote Sarah Harrison, editor of WikiLeaks, in The New York Times in 2016. "On one hand, that we simply dump whatever comes to us into the public’s arms; and on the other, that we pick and choose material to harm our alleged political enemies."

The moment is mid-November. Hillary Clinton has lost to Donald Trump. The story we’re already telling is that it’s at least partially the influence of WikiLeaks and its leader, Julian Assange, whose leak of hundreds of Democratic National Committee emails, when combined with the announcement of a new FBI investigation, seemed to have spurred one of the greatest political upsets in the history of the country. "I can understand the frustration, however misplaced, from Clinton supporters," writes Harrison. "But the WikiLeaks staff is committed to the mandate set by Mr. Assange, and we are not going to go away, no matter how much he is abused."

It’s a complicated, thorny letter, insistently defensive about the righteousness of Assange, not only regarding his decision to leak the DNC emails, but also relative to the ongoing questions raised about his character. It seems you cannot peel the two apart. Since 2010 Assange has stood accused of rape, sexual coercion, and molestation in Sweden. Since 2012 he’s been granted asylum at the Embassy of Ecuador in London, where he remains for fear of extradition. These two stories — the sexual assault accusations and Assange’s immeasurable impact on world politics — constitute the story of WikiLeaks, which was founded by Assange in 2006 and seems, despite the best efforts of many, to be inseparable from his image.

Risk, the documentary directed by Laura Poitras, is a complicated portrait of that image. Poitras began filming seven years ago, in 2010, after WikiLeaks released 700,000 previously classified U.S. military documents. The resulting documentary, filmed in Sweden and later in London, premiered last year at the Cannes Film Festival, to positive response. Plenty of things have happened in the Assange story since that premiere — among them, the U.S. presidential election. And as the story kept changing, so too did Poitras’s film.

The version of Risk that arrived in theaters Friday reflects those changes. It is the work of a filmmaker who understands that history is alive, and whose goal is not to crystallize that history into ready-made political takeaways, but rather to show herself working through the mess. Unlike Poitras’s previous film, the Oscar-winning Citizenfour, which documented Edward Snowden’s efforts to leak NSA documents to the press, Risk is not quite an intimate procedural that captures history as it happens, despite giving us incredible access to the backstage workings of the Assange operation. Nor is it really a deep dive into the substance of WikiLeaks’ leaks over the years, nor an in-depth study of the allegations made against Assange. It is an enlightening but uneasy combination of all of these things. It is beautifully interstitial. But more than anything, it’s a study of Poitras herself, who continually finds ways to remind us that as Assange changed, so did her feelings about the man.

We learn Poitras will not remain an objective, unheard presence behind the camera early on, when the director reads from the production notes she wrote while filming. We hear her worries. "With this film," she says in a voice-over, "the lines have become very blurred. Sometimes I can’t believe what Julian allows me to film." Later, she says: "It’s a mystery he trusts me, because I don’t think he likes me." The footage itself gives rise to similar questions on the viewer’s part: Why did he let her film this? We see conversations between Assange and his lawyers. We see strategy meetings with WikiLeaks editors. We see minor humiliations: When Assange tries to call Hillary Clinton to warn her about the military documents he’s just received, in 2010, we watch one of his editors call the State Department and report back, "You’re not on the appropriate level to speak with Hillary."

The portrait of Assange that emerges is not exactly sympathetic, but it’s admirably thorough. We witness what appears to be Assange’s calculating calm under stress. And then we see when that breaks down, and he shakes and blinks wildly with impatience. In his livelier moments, he’s prickly and sarcastic; otherwise, he seems soft and withdrawn, despite your sense that there’s something fierce roiling beneath.

It helps to see Assange the man, and not the icon, because you begin to wonder just why it is that his acolytes are so obsessed. People love him; this much is very clear. One of the strangest things I’ve seen in recent memory is a brief, startling scene in which a handful of Assange’s high-ranking employees and close allies stand all around him while one cuts his hair. It’s surreal. They’re giggling and watching a funny exercise video on YouTube while Assange sits, laughs, and looks at himself in a mirror. But though they undoubtedly fawn over him, the people surrounding him do, surprisingly, feel comfortable talking back. Their idolatry doesn’t lend itself to utter deference. If he interrupts, they scold him and tell him not to. When his ideas are stupid, they say so.

Seeing him occasionally put in his place complicates our sense of his power. There’s a gratifying moment relatively early on, when his lawyer, a woman, is attempting to persuade him to "find a language" to talk about the rape charges: something better than describing them as a "tawdry radical feminist political positioning thing," as he’s prone to do. Assange is a bit of a mess, in that regard. He goes so far as to suggest that the charges are not in his accusers’ best interests, because they’ll be reviled forever. He’s certainly right to believe that for some of his supporters, the preservation of his image is essential to sustaining WikiLeaks’ reputation in the world. But not for all: "Whatever he did there," says a young fan picketing outside of an Assange hearing in Sweden of the assaults, "I still support what he’s doing with WikiLeaks."

These complications are at the heart of Risk. They’re what Poitras has in mind when she says, in another voice-over, that "the contradictions" were becoming the story. "This is not the film I thought I was making," she says. It seems it’s impossible to make the film Poitras wants to make without incidentally casting an eye on a broader community of hackers afflicted by its own problems with power and, relatedly, gender. In one scene, Assange acolyte and once-renowned (now infamous) hacker Jacob Applebaum, speaking during a training session for the Tor Project, compares unprotected computing to having unsafe sex. He thinks he’s making a joke, but when it bombs, Poitras quickly trains her camera on the faces of the women in the room, whose blank gazes could suggest anything from disquieted inner rage to professional indifference.

Scenes like this make it hard not to notice that Assange is often surrounded by women: WikiLeaks editor Harrison, multiple lawyers, and Poitras herself. We can’t forget Poitras: The movie doesn’t let us. You always sense her there, behind the camera. A few critics have praised Poitras for, as A.O. Scott wrote in the Times, "refraining from passing judgment on Mr. Assange." This confuses Poitras’s knack for unobtrusive observation for a lack of criticism. But when Assange slips up and makes weird comments about women — such as while discussing his accusers with his lawyer — Poitras makes sure we’re looking at, or at least sensing, the women in the room. Here, as with Applebaum, Poitras not only passes a judgment on her ostensible protagonists: She lands them a swift hook to the jaw.

Poitras captures all of this in images that shimmer with clarity and precision. There’s something wonderfully clear-eyed about Risk, even as the questions and moods it ignites are murky and unsettling. The movie’s seven-year span has the eerie effect of collapsing a time of great political change into a short span, giving you the sense that the ground is shifting beneath your feet — which helps, because Poitras has been telling us all along that this documentary is, foremost, about the ground shifting beneath hers. Part of me wishes it had delved more aggressively into either Assange’s personality or the political ramifications of what he and his organization have accomplished over the past 11 years. But the rest of me loves the hybrid the movie currently is, with its odd straddling of irresolvable questions and inner conflicts. It will not please everyone — but that’s the risk.

An earlier version of this story inaccurately described the leaked Democratic National Committee emails as encrypted. They were not. An earlier version of this piece also incorrectly stated that Assange has sought asylum since 2012 because of possible charges related to the leaked DNC emails; the leaked emails were published in 2016.