Laura Poitras’ “Risk” is one of those documentaries which had me believing the scenes left on the cutting room floor were as, or perhaps even more, riveting as what ended up on the screen. It offers us a look into WikiLeaks and its creator Julian Assange, and it is a very intimate look which I was never sure we could ever get. What we get is a very compelling look at the inner workings of this organization which thrives on getting to the truth which is more often than not kept away from our prying eyes, and we see how this organization is constantly threatened by its infinitely powerful adversaries and perhaps by Assange himself. Yet at the same time, it feels like there is much more to the story than what we see onscreen.
Poitras filmed this documentary over the course of six years and was granted an astonishing amount of access to WikiLeaks and Assange. It starts off with Assange trying to get in touch with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the security of WikiLeaks has been breached to where Clinton’s emails are about to be revealed to a public eager to sift through them voraciously. Assange has been accused of conspiring with the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 Presidential election, but he is shown here to be very eager to inform Clinton of how her problems are going to be much bigger than his own.
The most introspective moments in “Risk” happen near its start as Assange talks about what drew him to the work he does today. In a talk with Poitras, he says he doesn’t believe in being a martyr as much as he does in those who take risks for the things they care deeply about. The way he sees it, it is far more dangerous to do nothing than it is to do something, and the inaction of many has certainly led people to go against their best interests for no intelligent reason.
As the documentary goes on, however, the focus of it becomes a bit muddled as Poitras admits she is not sure what to make of Assange after a while. We never see her onscreen, but she does provide narration at various points where she admits she can’t ignore the contradictions of Assange’s character and is convinced he doesn’t like her. There is a scene where he and a fellow lawyer retreat to the woods for a private conversation, and at times he urges Poitras to take her camera off of him as he shares something he doesn’t want her to know. Towards the end, she says her friendship with Assange deteriorated to the point where they were constantly yelling at each other. Taking this into account, it makes you wonder just how much access she really had to his world as he remains so close and yet so far away.
One thing which cannot be denied is the size of Assange’s ego as he confronts many obstacles and impediments with a strange confidence even while the odds are stacked against him. We can’t help but laugh at scenes where those who work closest to him exhibit an exasperation as they clearly more aware of the ramifications of his actions more than he ever bothers to. He also manages to keep Poitras and even Lady Gaga at a distance as he is questioned about his intents and of what might happen if WikiLeaks one day comes to a sudden halt.
Assange does address the sexual assault charges in how he feels the U.S. government will exploit them for the sake of turning the American people against them. Still, in her director’s statement, Poitras says there was legal and personal pressure and demands by him and his colleagues to remove scenes which deal with the sexual assault investigations, and this was further complicated by another member of his staff being accused of the same thing. “Risk” does not imply guilt on Assange’s part, but it also doesn’t prove he is innocent either. This, more than anything else, makes me wonder what was left out of the final cut. Assange appears assured that WikiLeaks can never be taken down, but it feels like his inner circle sees the dominoes falling down a lot quicker than he does.
Looking back, “Risk” is really more about Poitras than it is about Assange. We never see her face, but we do get narration from her throughout. On one hand, she has the kind of access so many others can only dream of having, but you feel her growing confusion as she continually wonders if she can ever figure this man out fully. At the end, it seems like she may never know as he becomes more and more remote to where she wonders if she has just been used to further his agenda.
Certainly, no one knows more about risk than Poitras as she has been constantly interrogated and detained by U.S. officials whenever she traveled internationally, but this has not deterred her from reporting on mass surveillance and getting Edward Snowden on camera to discuss what he knows about it. Her previous documentary, “Citizenfour,” quickly became one of the most politically potent films ever made about the power a government can have over its citizens and its quest to silence those who dissent. “Risk” finds her continuing her quest for the truth even as her main subject is at times elusive as the forces surrounding him become more determined to shut him down for good.
I wish the film had been more probing into Assange’s life as he still remains a bit of an enigma, and there will always be a cloud of distrust hanging over him until the day he dies. Still, “Risk” gives us the closest of looks at an organization which continues to expose the things your government doesn’t want you to know about. If you can get past its flaws, it is a compelling watch which will have you contemplating the future of the free press and the first amendment. It ends on an ominous note as the FBI is determined to prosecute anybody and everybody involved with WikiLeaks, and I left the theater wondering how much longer we will have the First Amendment to fall back on. Hopefully, it will never disappear, but with the Trump administration, many unthinkable things have suddenly become possible.