Julien Assange in Risk (Praxis Films)

In 2014, director Laura Poitras’s Edward J. Snowden documentary Citizenfour won the Oscar for best documentary and gave voice to the most damning whistleblower of National Security Administration (NSA) misdeeds. The only follow-up that could match that was to focus on WikiLeaks mastermind Julian Assange, which she has done in Risk. Filmed over six years, Poitras’s latest discloses even more about Assange than Citizenfour did on Snowden. But while the latter explained his motivations for blowing the whistle on the NSA spy program and filled in a good deal of the blanks in the public’s understanding of his story, the Julian Assange of Risk remains as much of a riddle as ever.

Though there are a number of fascinating insights into the machinations of WikiLeaks that are by turns absurd and unsettling, one gets the feeling that Poitras simply had a huge pile of footage sitting around that she wanted to release as a film. It doesn’t really come together, aside from its behind-the-scenes access to Assange and his coterie of devoted admirers. While Snowden revealed himself to be a principled American patriot who felt it was his duty as a citizen to reveal what the government was doing to its own people, the Assange of Risk engenders few feelings of understanding or empathy. He emerges as a self-created character, part hero and part villain, and seems to have few qualities aside from narcissism.

In some ways, Risk is one of the more fascinating recent depictions of the cult of personality. The small, merry band of ragtag misfits, like WikiLeaks editor Sarah Harrison, coder Jacob Appelbaum, and others, carry out his anarchic vision with superhuman zeal and tenacity. They are especially good at putting up with Assange’s nearly autistic disregard for tact, cues, and his utter lack of affect. His vocal range is nonexistent—he speaks at a continual low, flat, mumbling growl.

Yet Assange is quite image conscious, as are his employees/followers. In one odd, revealing scene, his followers, while drinking and smoking, fawn over him as Appelbaum cuts and styles Assange’s hair, offering their praise of the look, while the leader admires himself in the mirror. It’s the Manson family, minus murder, plus keyboards.

Appelbaum actually makes far more of an impression in his limited screen time than Assange. Early on, we see Appelbaum’s extended confrontation with Egyptian authorities who controlled data systems following the 2011 revolution. In a panel discussion before a full audience, Appelbaum ruthlessly critiques the corporate and state power nexus that had conspired to control and limit Internet freedom, in real time, to its face. Watching this scene makes one wonder if anyone had ever been quite that badass before.

Yet both men are deeply flawed. Assange’s problems with women are well known. He was accused of rape by two women in Sweden, the reason for his nearly five-year long imprisonment in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Appelbaum also faces extensive accusations of sexual assault and harassment from a variety of female colleagues over the years. Appelbaum is only featured in footage shot many years ago, before most of the allegations came to light, and did not choose to be interviewed for the film.

Assange, however, makes his deep issues with women obvious. In a telling meeting with one of the several lawyers we see him consulting with throughout, Assange is gently coached on how to address the rape allegations. The well-meaning attorney delicately attempts to tell him not to be a flippant jerk when discussing the rape charges. But all Assange can do is mock and belittle the issue entirely, choosing ad hominem attacks on the women and scoffing at their involvement in opening a lesbian bar. Misogyny leaks out of him in a wave of righteous indignation he can’t contain, making him seem more of a fit for the alt-right than the antiwar left.

In another revealing sequence, we see his escape from a London hotel in June 2012 when his request for a stay of extradition was denied by the U.K. Supreme Court. He dons an elaborate disguise, complete with leather jacket and a cigarette, and we accompany him as he whizzes through the streets of London to his refuge at the embassy. This scene reveals more about Assange than any other, as he is at his most vulnerable, facing extradition, and he has his mother with him in the hotel room. Yet he largely ignores her, focusing instead on cultivating his overgrown teenage rebel look, muttering a few words while giving her an awkward high-five.

It is telling that Risk is not named after Assange himself, as Citizenfour was about Snowden (a name that Snowden thought up to describe himself), but rather about the cornerstone of Assange’s worldview. But risk is not an especially profound or meaningful concept—it’s hollow. Risk informed WikiLeaks’ most recent hack of Clinton political family consigliere John Podesta’s emails—Assange felt that a Clinton presidency represented a known certainty of warmongering, as evidenced by her advocacy of regime change in Libya in 2011. Donald Trump, on the other hand, was viewed as an unpredictable wildcard, perhaps less bellicose than Clinton. A few months into Trump’s presidency, however, has seemingly proven Assange’s gamble wrong—Trump has unleashed the ferocity of the American war machine to a frightening extent.

Poitras wonders aloud at the changing nature of her documentary project, and Assange ends up distancing himself from the film—quite a different approach from Snowden’s active, visible support for Citizenfour (and for Oliver Stone’s Snowden drama). The film itself takes on that confused aspect, never quite sure what it wants to be or why it exists and never quite sure just who Julian Assange really is. An interesting cultural artifact, Risk pulls the curtain back on the influential but obscure WikiLeaks operation, but it doesn’t have a point of view or much analysis of WikiLeaks’ impact on global events. It ends up being more of a curiosity than a vital contributing document to global affairs.

Directed by Laura Poitras
Released by Neon
USA. 92 min. Not rated