Review: 'Risk', Julian Assange Isn't So Compelling Anymore

“I thought I could ignore the contradictions. I thought they were not part of the story. I was wrong. They’re becoming the story,", utters documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras near the beginning of her latest film, Risk. It encapsulates her shifting feelings on her subject, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, but might as well regard the evolution of the film itself. It debuted a year ago at Cannes, and based on the response from people I know who saw it, Poitras' cut was a fairly simple rah-rah piece championing Assange's cause, much like her award-winning Edward Snowden doc Citizenfour was.

Then things changed. Assange found himself at the center of the 2016 Presidential election as Wikileaks dumped thousands of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee, a plot we know to have been set in motion by Russia to help Donald Trump's campaign. Along with the persistent sexual assault charges plaguing him, Assange's public profile turned dark very quickly, and apparently so had Poitras' opinion of him. The last year has seen Risk undergo a heavy edit to include the latest information all the way up Trump's first month in office. Here's the problem: it's still 99% covered territory.

The vast bulk of Risk is a recap of everything about Assange we've seen in numerous films, both narrative and documentary. We already know the grey-haired revolutionary/terrorist is a mass of contradictions, a secretive man who espouses the free flow of information. We even know that he's a bit of a chauvinist pig underneath all of the cloak and dagger disguises, paranoia, and speeches about holding the world governments accountable. In one moment he's deriding the Hillary Clinton-led State Department for not taking a phone call from him seriously enough, and then the next he's deriding the "radical feminist conspiracy” that has apparently chosen him as their target. The next he's engaged in a too-absurd-to-be-real interview with Lady Gaga at the Ecuadorian embassy that comes off like a sketch from Who's Line Is It Anyway?  Poitras takes us through the formation of Wikileaks, the vast information dump of classified documents in 2010 that saw Assanger emerge as a heroic figure for openness and democracy, while also making the name 'Bradley Manning' famous. But there's nothing new there, just a recitation of data we are long since familiar with.

It's mildly interesting to chart the evolution of Poitras' feelings about Assange and Wikileaks. During one of her sporadic voice-overs she wonders openly why Assange trusts her and allows her such unprecedented access, much like what she received from Snowden for Citizenfour. The answer is obvious to anyone who has followed Assange and probably to some who haven't; he loves the attention, and he knows attention gets things done. He's practically mugging for the camera every time he appears.  Shockingly unfocused, Poitras repeatedly cycles back to Wikileaks activist and hacker Jacob Appelbaum, who in the last year has himself been accused of sexual abuse against colleagues in the hacker community. Poitras hints at a future movie there, digging within the tight-knit hacker cabal to find a rotten core of male dominated sexual misconduct. But it serves as little more than a distraction here, other than as confirmation of Poitras' souring on Wikileaks' entire movement. Conversely, Assange's attitude towards Poitras darkens, as well, as he becomes increasingly paranoid and jealous of others who have stepped into his spotlight.

The entire reason for the vast amount of jiggering Poitras did was to include information about Wikileaks' ties to Russia, but it's literally about 10 minutes of the film and none of it revelatory. Well, there may be one good thing that comes out of it, and it's that put into the context Poitras has shaped, Assange's denials of collusion with the Kremlin ring as phony as his fake contact lenses.

Rating: 2 out of 5