The making of Risk is far more interesting than the film itself—though in a way, the two are one and the same. Director Laura Poitras, who won an Oscar for Citizenfour (2014), originally premiered Risk—a long-gestating documentary on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks—at Cannes in 2016. But then, in that frazzled, insane year, circumstances changed: first when one of her interview subjects at WikiLeaks (a former lover, she reveals) was accused of sexual assault, and then when WikiLeaks played a key role in helping Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton. With reality unfolding faster than her film, she went back to Risk after its festival premiere, added to it, and re-edited it. “This is not the film I thought I was making,” Poitras says in voice-over. Then what is it? The 2017 cut captures nothing so much as a sense of utter disorientation. The political becomes personal. Is Assange a hero, personally or politically? In the story of WikiLeaks, ironies abound: a martyr for many libertarians, progressives, and leftists helped elect the most reactionary American President of our lifetime. It all depends on whose secrets you expose, and to what end; after the DNC leaks, Sarah Palin went from calling Assange a terrorist to praising him for opening the public’s eyes.
As for Assange as a human being, Risk has only a limited portrait to work with—what comes across most in his direct interviews are a scent of calculated egotism, a hyper-awareness of public perception, and a grandiosity that fits whatever an anarchist’s version of “megalomania” is. Most of the film is, in fact, sparse and rather dull, detailing in a scattered way all of the backstory we already know: the rise of WikiLeaks, the contested Swedish rape allegations against Assange, and his asylum in Ecuador’s British embassy. But the final fifteen minutes of the film, ripped from last year’s headlines, are something potent. Some have accused Risk of having an axe to grind against Assange, as certain scenes present a very unflattering view of his attitudes towards women. But I think it’s more complex than a hit job: what we have is a political filmmaker at the center of a spinning moral compass. Poitras is, to put it mildly, far from pro-establishment (indeed, she has a history of being monitored, detained, and questioned by the feds). But the conclusion of Risk, to the extent that it concludes at all, is a fear that the control of information in the digital age is too great a power to be entrusted to anyone. Whether it’s the NSA, telecom companies, the New York Times, Rupert Murdoch, or an organization ostensibly built to promote political transparency, there are agendas and motives that won’t be openly talked about to the public. Risk neither rails against nor unquestioningly supports WikiLeaks. It fears Trump and holds no affection for Clinton or the United States federal government. At the space in between, it ends up as one of the most coldly anxious films of the year.
Reality continues to unfold fast. Since Risk came out, it’s been revealed that WikiLeaks communicated and coordinated with the Trump campaign, with Assange’s antipathy towards American imperialism making strange bedfellows out of WikiLeaks, Trump, Putin, Bernie-or-busters, and your ardently Republican uncle. Risk‘s misfortune as a shaky, fitfully incomplete work of documentary cinema is that Poitras happened to make it too soon. America, Assange, Trump, and a global gallery of power players and activists are all caught in a whirlwind. Risk is just a brief, blurry snapshot of a story that’s far from over. Someday, it can be told in full. If nothing else, what a documentary that will be.
Risk is available wherever you can watch or stream Showtime.