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Movie Review: New Documentary 'Risk' Doesn't Do Justice to WikiLeaks' Julian Assange


The title of the Laura Poitras documentary just released is sadly ironic. Something seriously weird is going on here. The Oscar-winning director (Citizenfour) began the project in 2010 with unlimited access to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. A glimpse into the daily life of the world's most controversial fugitive: What could go wrong?

As it turns out, Poitras could have made questionable choices that put at risk both her reputation and the safety of people who trusted her. This isn't the Risk screened at the Cannes Festival last spring. And that wasn't the same Risk shown at the 2015 New York Film Festival. And the Risk in theaters isn't the film that'll be available on Showtime this summer. So what's the unprecedented deal?

The unprecedented and worrisome deal is this: At a moment when information leaks are all that stand between a dangerously unhinged Trump regime and any hope of a correction, Poitras has done a 180 regarding her subject and his mission. While previous cuts lionized Assange and championed his work, admiration has been edited out, mistrust and character assassination substituted. That's concerning enough. Her motivation is even more so.

What remains of earlier versions includes footage of life inside London's Ecuadorian embassy. Assange has essentially been imprisoned there since 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden. Until recently, authorities wanted to question him about allegations of sexual misconduct. The fear was, this was a pretext for arresting him and extraditing him to the U.S.

Assange comes off as paranoid. You would, too, in his shoes. Barack Obama threatened him with charges carrying the death penalty. Donald Trump has made things less inviting. CIA director Mike Pompeo maintains that Assange and associates have zero First Amendment rights. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called Assange's arrest a priority. Your tax dollars at work.

Risk introduces us to several associates, including Sarah Harrison, an award-winning journalist Poitras paints as basically an adoring gofer. We meet Jacob Appelbaum, a privacy activist for Tor. In a scene straight out of Michael Moore, Appelbaum confronts Egyptian telecom leaders at a Cairo panel, accusing them of collusion with former president Hosni Mubarak. It's the closest the film comes to an electric moment.

Poitras has added footage of Assange discussing the rape allegations. Visibly incensed, he makes an unguarded remark or two about his accusers. The scene appears calculated to make him look misogynistic. Swedish prosecutors have since dropped the investigation. Will Poitras include that in the Showtime version? Stay tuned.

In addition to a spooky score, Poitras has added a voice-over. She describes her dreams of Assange, announces she no longer trusts him without explaining why, and admits to having had an intimate relationship with Appelbaum, a boundary violation that, according to the Washington Post, "casts serious doubt on her judgment and credibility."

The Post isn't alone in taking issue with Poitras' methods. On May 17, attorneys for WikiLeaks issued a statement censuring her for numerous contractual violations that, they maintain, "place our clients in legal jeopardy." One involves an agreement to permit subjects to view Risk before release. You guessed it: The cut Poitras screened wasn't the one just released. Holy freedom of information, Batman!

"Instead of a documentary about the abuse of state power and WikiLeaks' important role in exposing it," the statement continues, "the emphasis of the film is now ... disputed claims about an ex-boyfriend."

This may well be Poitras' Nate Parker moment. Her latest is a muddled, psychodramatic mess evidently shaped by a semi-adolescent thirst for retribution. Now playing: the unkindest cut of all.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Risk"