Risk should be a boring movie. Sure, it’s the latest documentary from Academy Award-winner Laura Poitras, but it’s also about WikiLeaks. Haven’t we all had enough of Julian Assange and his cadre of world-warping weirdos? The thing is, you’ve never seen Assange like this. You’ve never seen him up close and ugly. And that’s exactly why you must see Risk.
Due to reasons, the specific version of Risk that I saw this week is not the same version that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in March of 2016. Those reasons most prominently include WikiLeaks’ role in the 2016 election and former WikiLeaks representative Jacob Appelbaum’s sexual misconduct scandal. After the premiere, Poitras and company added additional footage addressing these developments, footage that I believe makes the film much more powerful. Having never seen the cut showed at Cannes, I can’t say exactly what’s different, but I can say the version of Risk that hits theaters May 5 is phenomenal.
The film opens with a shot of Assange pulling a cork out of a bottle with his teeth. He looks like a silly frat boy, but he succeeds and pours three drinks. While it initially seems like the movie is about to put you to sleep with a series of sit-down interviews, you’re promptly informed that Poitras has been filming Assange since 2011, when WikiLeaks dumped thousands of United States diplomatic cables onto the internet and rocked the state of global politics. In the first ten minutes of the film, Risk shows a not-yet-famous Julian Assange attempting to get Hillary Clinton on the phone so he can warn her about the 2011 leaks. (He fails.)
From that moment on, it’s thrillingly apparent that Poitras was given unprecedented access to Assange and a handful of other WikiLeaks leaders, including Jacob Appelbaum and Sarah Harrison. Because of that access, Risk becomes a breathtaking rollercoaster through recent history, from the aftermath of the Arab Spring to the 2016 election and everything in between. And as Poitras magnificently illustrates with her cinéma vérité-inspired style, history doesn’t always unfold in massive protests or under bright lights. Sometimes, it happens in quiet rooms, amongst clueless friends. According to Risk, that’s pretty much how the Earth-shaking accomplishments of WikiLeaks happened.
Ultimately, the film becomes a tortured portrait of Julian Assange. There’s almost no footage that expresses how WikiLeaks affected global politics until the film’s final few scenes. What we get instead is a carefully curated series of scenes showing the WikiLeaks founder at his most vulnerable moments: as he faces sexual assault allegations, as he flees to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, as he rots in the embassy for years, as he plots to influence the 2016 election. We also see the brazenly human moments: when Jacob Appelbaum cuts Assange’s hair (for some reason), when Assange disguises himself as a bearded biker in order to evade authorities, when Lady Gaga visited the embassy (for some reason), when Assange peers out the window looking for the sky. Again, the world has never seen Julian Assange like this.
So how does he look? Pretty evil and deranged, to be honest. His erstwhile lieutenant, Jacob Appelbaum, doesn’t look good either. Both men have faced allegations of sexual assault and abuse, and Risk spends a decent amount of time on these scandals, sparing no damning detail. Near the end of the film, Poitras admits that she briefly dated Appelbaum in 2014 and also highlights the fact that one of her close friends accused Appelbaum of abuse. Assange, meanwhile, talks on camera about how he wants to silence the women who accused him of sexual assault, exposing a line of thinking that makes him seem dreadfully guilty. The scenes, along with the one sit down interview between Poitras and Assange, suggest that the WikiLeaks founder is primarily interested in power, expressing it and exerting it on those around him as well as the world itself.
Watching all of this sounds stressful, and it is. What saves the movie from becoming a depressing mindfuck is really, really excellent filmmaking. The cinematography is simply beautiful, pairing tense scenes shot with a handheld camera with suggestive landscapes. The scenes from the early days of WikiLeaks take place in a house where Assange and friends are holed up. As they’re orchestrating the organization’s first major leak, the camera pans to a tree just outside the home that resembles a tangled mess of knots. When we get to the part about Hillary Clinton losing the election, we see Donald Trump’s smirking face on a massive screen, interrupted by a latticework of cables that made me think of puppet strings. The film should be boring, but actually it’s pensive—enlightening, even.
And yet, by the time the title slams onto the screen after the final scene, you’re left to wonder one thing above all: why the name Risk? Is the documentary supposed to express the risk Assange took when he decided to create what the US government now calls a “non-state intelligence agency?” Is about risking freedom in the name of radical transparency? That seems too obvious.
Perhaps, it’s about Assange embracing his power to create risk by exposing secrets? It’s almost as if Assange thinks of the world as a board game for him and his friends and his stolen secrets. If so, it’s a pretty twisted game he’s playing.