Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour is nothing if not confident in the nobility of Edward Snowden’s mission to expose the rights-encroaching inner workings of the National Security Agency through the classified documents that he leaked. By all accounts, the original cut of Risk that premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival was similarly one-sided in its valorization of Julian Assange, whose WikiLeaks organization has made the encouragement of such government transparency its entire mission. Since then, however, Assange’s own public image has taken a considerable hit, not only with Sweden’s attempts to extradite him in order to get him to answer sexual harassment allegations, but also WikiLeaks’s publication of private Hillary Clinton emails that many believe helped Donald Trump to secure the U.S. presidency.
Judging by the version of Risk that’s now hitting theaters, Poitras herself was profoundly affected by this shift. Assange here certainly doesn’t come off as a heroic figure; his actions may be laudable, depending on whether you align with his belief in greater governmental transparency in general, but the man himself remains a chilly, emotionally remote, and ambiguous figure throughout. Poitras goes a step further than just presenting Assange for our observation, building her own ambivalence about him into the project. Unlike her previous films, Risk features bits of the director’s own voiceover narration, in the form of production-journal entries in which she articulates struggles that she dealt with during the production: the fact that the project morphed into something completely different from what she initially intended; her complicated feelings about the figure she’s chronicling; even her romantic involvement with Jacob Appelbaum, a WikiLeaks representative and widely known hacker who’s also come under fire for alleged sex abuse.
By putting her own uncertainties and vulnerabilities out there so directly, Risk becomes as much about Poitras as it is about Assange and what he represents in the fight for civil liberties and freedom of information. These personal aspects give the film a faintly insular quality that limits its reach compared to the way that Poitras so masterfully allowed the intimate human stories she chronicled in her previous work to speak for the broader topical concerns she aimed to address. But by bringing us so intimately into her own thought processes, Risk feels richer than even Citizenfour for the way its foundation constantly shifts beneath our feet, as each new scene shines a different light on Assange and his work, and each seems to comment on the preceding one, whether to confirm or to challenge an impression.
Laura Poitras doesn’t indulge in score-settling cheap shots, but seriously grapples with her contradictory subject.
At times, an observation that Poitras makes in voiceover early on reverberates in a later scene. One can’t help but think of Poitras comparing Assange’s way of running WikiLeaks to that of an intelligence agency when we bear witness to a press conference in which one of Assange’s associates demands that the press restrict themselves to questions about a recent WikiLeaks publication and refrain from asking about his personal troubles. The implication that Poitras is equating Assange with the methods of the governmental bodies he’s going after shines an unsettling light on the man’s efforts.
Nor do small personal moments that make Assange seem every bit as unappealing as the harassment accusations lobbed at him imply escape the filmmaker’s closely observant gaze. “Do the feminine thing,” Assange tells a female colleague by way of advice as she tries to conquer her nerves before making a statement at a press conference. And when he’s pressed on the harassment allegations themselves, he even goes so far as to suggest a conspiracy among certain hardcore feminists to try to bring him down.
Poitras includes such moments not to indulge in score-settling cheap shots, as Michael Moore might, but to seriously grapple with her contradictory subject. During an interview Assange gives to, of all people, Lady Gaga, he responds to the musician’s questions about his own feelings about the sexual harassment allegations by saying that he doesn’t take his own feelings into account when considering a larger picture. That dryly intellectual perspective extends to a labored metaphor he articulates toward the end of the film in which he compares his own approach to dealing with the moral implications of the leaks he publishes to that of a weed-infested garden and how he doesn’t care so much about his own garden as he does about the world around it. In the end, Poitras’s conflicted nature about the implications of Assange’s analogy—applauding his far-seeing vision while finding fault with the figure himself—gives Risk a fascinating sense of irresolution.