(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, October 2015) The Edward Snowden saga is still fresh enough that it doesn’t quite seem worthy of a documentary just yet. But Citizenfour is something slightly different: It doesn’t try to propose an all-encompassing theory as much as explore a pivotal moment in time. Documentarian Laura Poitras was actually there when Snowden first physically met with journalist Glenn Greenwald to explain his cache of documents. The documentary itself is raw, presenting an intimate you-are-there account of the meeting between the two men. It’s not meant to be an all-encompassing exposé of the current surveillance state, but it’s certainly eloquent in doing so by small moments, whether it’s Snowden typing a password under a cloak to defeat visual surveillance, or having their meeting disrupted by mysterious interruptions. Snowden himself comes across as a smart, humble, justifiably paranoid young man, driven by strong moral principles. Reaction to Citizenfour will probably hinge on viewers’ opinion of the Snowden leaks, but at this time, while Snowden is still effectively exiled in Russia and the full magnitude of his revelations still have to be felt, Citizenfour is a great first draft of history.