(On Cable TV, September 2017) Filmmaker Laura Poitras rose to prominence with Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning documentary that chronicled the tension-filled week during which Edward Snowden revealed the NSA’s secrets to the world. Now she’s back with Risk, an inside look at Julian Assange and Wikileaks that was actually begun before Citizenfour’s events. As with most independent profiles of Assange, it’s not exactly complimentary. He’s variously portrayed as cranky, sexist, arrogant and misguided. This portrait certainly matches other sources of information about Assange, and Poitras’ growing disenchantment with him does reflect the consensus opinion about him. By the end of the film, Poitras doesn’t even shy away from credible suggestions that Assange has now become an agent, willing or not, of the Russian government in interfering in US affairs (including the 2016 presidential election). Such is the way of history, in which heroes seemingly too good to be true end up revealing their human flaws and being captured by interests outside of their self-reflection. Take on the world, and the world will fight back. While Risk offers original footage that confirms what has been discussed at length on the Internet, it remains a frustrating film for a number of reasons: It lacks a clear focus, or at least a clean line from beginning to end—there’s a sense that we go from one thing to another, somehow ending without a conclusion. To be fair, there is a lot of material discussed here (Manning! Assange! Wikileaks! Tor! Ecuadorian Embassy! Rape allegations! American Elections!), heightening the need for a compelling narrative guide. As with Citizenfour, Poitras chooses to distance herself from the camera, which becomes a less and less appropriate choice as it becomes clear that she was involved as more than a journalist in Wikileaks’s affairs. As it is, Risk exists a bit too removed from her experience—on-screen text and occasional voiceovers don’t quite manage to capture her journey away from Wikileaks and Assange. There are a lot of good ideas in this film, but they’re not developed fully, and may be hampered by the necessity to stick close to the footage she has shot—I’m left wondering if a more direct in-your-face approach, with on-screen appearances might not have produced better results. But who knows? Risk was reportedly reworked for a year in-between its debut at the 2016 Cannes festival and its 2017 wide cable TV release, and real-world event such as the American election clearly influenced the final cut. Wait six months, and I suspect that Assange’s story will have another twist or two. [November 2017: … and there it is, not even three months later: revelations that Assange was in communication with the Trump campaign, offering secrets and asking for an ambassadorship.]
(On Cable TV, August 2015) You could ask why anyone should watch a documentary about a story that’s both not that old (The Wikileaks saga peaked in 2009-2011), and so well-covered just about everywhere (starting with Wikipedia’s interminable articles on Wikileaks, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning) that another take on the same events would be redundant. But Alex Gibney is a top-level documentarian, and he understands that the art of the doc is largely based on selection of material and emotional impact. So it is that We Steal Secrets structures its material in a way that makes a complex issue relatively clear, and does amazing things in presenting Instant Messenger chats: The use of pauses, selective highlight of text and isolated sentence fragments in exceptionally powerful. Roughly 30 minutes of the 2-hour film is made of computer-animated segments, providing a visual unity to the film that could have been diffused had it been a straight-up succession of talking heads. While Assange himself is typically missing from the film’s roster (he’s not really the type to contribute to fair-minded depictions of him or his activities, as proven by his over-the-top reaction to The Fifth Estate and other examinations) and while Manning is obviously absent by dint of being detained, We Leak Secrets thrives on a series of good interview subjects. While some of the remote psychoanalysis of Assange and Manning is a bit exasperating, most of the talking heads say interesting things –perhaps the most interesting of them being ex-CIA head Michael Hayden, who says things you may not expect from a man of his experience. (The title of the film is his.) Otherwise, We Steal Secrets is generally even-handed, giving voice to dissenting, even fringe opinions, while trying to be as clear as possible about its topic. Heartbreak is inevitable, especially as the film delves into Manning’s crushing isolation, the actions of Adrian Lamo and, later on, a testimony by one of the woman who accused Assange of sexual impropriety. I’ve been casually following the Wikileaks story for a while, and couldn’t find inaccuracies in the finished product. (Wikileaks posted a detailed rebuttal, but Assange’s thin skin is legendary and he’ll be forever unsatisfied by anything short of hagiography.) I have seldom been disappointed by a Gibney documentary yet, and if We Steal Secrets seems to be his most obvious topic yet, it’s as slick and fascinating as any of his other films. As a first-pass attempt at history-making, it seems fairer than most… although I believe that the final word on Wikileaks, Assange and Manning is yet to come.
(Video on Demand, February 2014) It’s far too soon to even think about contextualizing the Wikileaks saga of 2010-2011 and Julian Assange’s place in history when so much still remains to be written and a self-exiled Assange looks spent as a significant political force. Still, director Bill Condon and writer Josh Singer do their best with The Fifth Estate, an attempt to craft a dramatic story out of too-recent world events. The film starts and ends pretentiously by spouting once more the rhetoric that the kind of open-reporting exemplified by Wikileaks is an inevitable and destabilizing evolution in the history of the world. But once it settles down and focuses on substance, The Fifth Estate becomes an exemplary demonstration of how to do a biographical film about a controversial figure: by focusing on acolyte Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s infatuation and subsequent disenchantment with Assange, The Fifth Estate avoids getting into Assange’s mind and lays the ground for a solid man-learns-better dramatic structure on which to hang the various historical events and ideas. It works, but in a familiar well-worn fashion: The film feels familiar even when it discusses the revolutionary, and the structure can’t quite sustain the amount of detail that the script feels forced to include (although the look at the European hacking scene has its moments). If this fairly ordinary film has a standout element, it’s got to be Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Assange, charismatic and repellent in turn, hitting a sweet spot between hero-making and warts-and-all reporting. The real story is considerably messier than the dramatic arc of the film (Domscheit-Berg’s actions after leaving Wikileaks will strike most as deplorable), but the Assange’s portrait seems reasonably consistent with other published accounts of the man [February 2014: including a recent damning profile by his once-ghostwriter] which is already something. The Fifth Estate famously flopped at the box-office, turning in results that were more in line with small art-house releases than A-list Hollywood productions, but the film itself is more bland than bad, and should still please anyone with an interest in the modern maelstrom of information-sharing. It’s not because the final chapter has yet to be written that we can’t look at the first few drafts of history.