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Risk Movie Review

Risk (2017) movie poster Risk

Theatrical Release: May 5, 2017 / Running Time: 97 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Laura Poitras / Producers: Laura Poitras, Brenda Coughlin, Yoni Goljiov

Subjects: Julian Assange, Sarah Harrison, Jacob Applebaum, Renata Avila

 

After years of being monitored on government watch lists, documentarian Laura Poitras made history as one of three journalists that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked documents to. Citizenfour, the film she made out of her 2013 interviews of Snowden at a Hong Kong hotel, went on to win 2014's Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Portrayed by Melissa Leo, Poitras featured in Oliver Stone's 2016 dramatization of Snowden's life.

Before Citizenfour even came to fruition, Poitras was already at work on Risk, a kindred documentary about WikiLeaks founder and editor Julian Assange. The polarizing white-haired journalist was someone Hollywood felt compelled to make sense of. The first attempt, The Social Network-esque 2014 biopic The Fifth Estate starring Benedict Cumberbatch, was a complete critical and commercial failure. Now, Risk attempts to tell Assange's story without actors or substantial creative license.

Poitras' film opens in 2010 with Assange and his WikiLeaks editor Sarah Harrison trying to get ahold of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to inform her of the imminent threat that the US faces by having full government archives leaked, sans redactions, by a third party. They get a call back from a lawyer, but this doesn't really move the documentary in any direction. Instead, profile-raising sexual assault charges from two women in Sweden change our perception of the principal subject. Assange asserts his innocence throughout, but with a severe lack of delicacy in these somewhat candid recordings, as he vows to his lawyer keep private his belief in a feminist conspiracy against him and laments the fact that the charges of a single woman would be easy to dismiss with character attack.

WikiLeaks founder and editor-in-chief Julian Assange is the subject of Laura Poitras' 2017 documentary "Risk."

Assange the sexual assailant has always been a more scintillating subject than Assange the free speech crusader, but Poitras doesn't zero in on just one aspect of this intriguing figure, instead giving us a little bit of everything. There's Assange colleague Jacob Appelbaum railing Egyptian telecoms for censoring (and then profiting) off the 2011 revolution and later sparking sexual assault claims of his own. Snowden makes a brief appearance here, his asylum to Russia with the help of WikiLeaks funds and Harrison supplying a relevant subplot.

Risk makes no effort to either canonize or condemn Assange. There is nothing black and white about his work at WikiLeaks and the line between whistleblower and traitor remains blurred. Instead, Poitras uses her access to give us a better understanding of the man, whether he's sitting in the woods worrying about birds and suspicious passerbys while confiding in a lawyer or getting his hair cut by his followers while watching humorous videos of that Japanese TV show that combined aerobics with English language lessons.

Assange is many things: revered like a cult leader, understandably paranoid, impervious to personal repercussion, openly sexist, and seemingly more interested in his brainchild than in any consequences to the leaks he spreads. He answers questions from a mildly interested, British-accented, camera-wielding Lady Gaga. He seems to cringe slightly at the extreme sentences handed down to WikiLeaks source Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning, whose commutation by President Obama in his final month is mentioned. Poitras also makes this perhaps the first major theatrical film to document the election of Donald Trump, using it to raise questions about Russia's involvement and the role that WikiLeaks might have played in misdoings, an admittedly flimsy link to the main narrative.

Assange is every bit as compelling a subject as Snowden but he inspires a wider and more complicated range of reactions. His story also isn't as tidy, which makes Risk much less satisfying than Citizenfour was. But Poitras brings to this the same curiosity, conscientiousness, and skepticism she brought to her Oscar winner, making for another riveting documentary that leaves you thinking and asking questions you didn't consider beforehand.

Related Reviews:
Directed by Laura Poitras: Citizenfour | Julian Assange: The Fifth Estate | Dramatizing Laura Poitras: Snowden
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Reviewed May 12, 2017.



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