Laura Poitras has done it again. Much like the celebrated Edward Snowden documentary “Citizenfour,” “Risk” is instilled with a sense of immediate urgency as an apprehensive cloud hovers over every action, every word, every wayward glance. The focus here is on WikiLeaks-founder Julian Assange, who’s made it his life’s work to create a portal dedicated to the democratic ideal of free speech and free knowledge. In many ways the poster child for the new age of journalism, one which places the power of the internet at the forefront, Assange is captured behind the scenes during his most trying times, in the years between 2010 and 2016.
Those who follow news and know about Assange’s work for WikiLeaks will recognize every step this documentary takes. “Risk” is chaptered into 10 sections, some lasting 10 minutes, others lasting 3, with no immediately clear rhyme or reason to the partitions other than the fact they add a sense of dramatic effect (the large roman numerals linking what we see on screen with tangible historicity). We start during the Arab Spring, as Assange and his closest teammate, Sarah Harrison, try to warn the U.S. government about information they’ve discovered, that they plan to bring to light. They try to get Hilary Clinton on the phone, but Assange just ends up tiptoeing around what he calls a “legal minefield” with a befuddled lawyer. But it’s a courtesy call more than anything because Assange is publishing the material regardless of what the outcome of the phone call is.
Members of WikiLeaks are fervently against any kind of censorship and dedicate their livelihoods to spreading information they believe people have a right to know. We see this with independent journalist Jacob Applebaum, who is corresponding from the Middle East and whom we get to see during a “Freedom of the Internet” panel in Cairo, Egypt. He stands strong against corporate representatives who have aligned with corrupt regimes and bravely puts them on the spot about their convictions on censorship. It’s the first of many hair-trigger scenes that pulsate through the screen and have you clenching your fists. With the “Espionage Act” threatening Assange in the United States, he is called to court on allegations of sexual assault in 2011, but no charges have been made and he, of course, denies it. Believing it’s a ploy to get him into the United States, Assange instead ends up taking refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he continues to resides.
Poitras gets unprecedented access to Assange, Harrison, and Applebaum, letting us hear conversations in cars and closed rooms, making us feel the constant pins-and-needles of this line of work for which people have risked their private lives. “Risk” is an oft-repeated word, mostly by Assange himself, as he warns his colleagues and talks to the camera about the necessity of risk-taking in his role at Wikileaks. I guess the only thing one could say against “Risk” the movie is that it doesn’t take any in terms of cinema. But, then again, that’s not what this is about. “Risk” is politics, not cinema. The use of Radiohead’s “I Might Be Wrong” is the closest thing to a stylistic flourish next to the roman numerals, but otherwise the camera is a quiet observer of modern revolutionaries in the digital age. Though the fact that many make direct references to Poitras throughout adds nicely to the immediacy.
Other than getting to know Harrison and Applebaum, who currently can’t go back to their homes either because of the “Espionage Act,” the documentary is greatest when humanizing Assange. As someone who’s always appeared a bit cold and aloof in public media, and who admittedly has never cried since hitting puberty (as told to a chilled-out Lady Gaga in the Ecuadorian embassy, in a scene that produced the biggest laughs at my screening), we get to see him conversing with his mother and, in one key scene, attempt to get information about Harrison who is accompanying Edward Snowden to Moscow. In these scenes, and the few sparse ones in which he cracks a smile or a chuckle, the portrait of Julian Assange is painted with vital and endearingly humane brushstrokes.
It’s the only thing that may surprise you in “Risk,” which is otherwise something we’ve become very used to with Poitras, arguably the most important documentarian working today. It’s impossible to divorce the viewing experience from the knowledge of how much risk she herself has taken to produce it, which only adds to the exigency of her film. [B]