BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC As Risk, the latest film from documentarian Laura Poitras, gets underway — with its darkened hotel rooms, glowing LED screens and Poitras’ distinctive, hushed, monotone narration — it quickly feels like we’re back for a sequel to her Academy Award winning profile of whistle-blower Edward Snowden, 2014’s Citizenfour. Nobody is calling Risk a sequel, yet in some ways it is that and more, a film in production both before and after Citizenfour that contains and builds on all of the earlier films themes. As the film sets out to tell the story of Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange, it soon becomes clear that the Wikileaks story is hugely complicated in both its details and ramifications. Personifying all that is Assange himself, a man of contradictions and complications, someone about whom everyone seems to have an opinion. Poitras’ profile of Assange, in ways seemingly purposeful and accidental, underlines the tragic insufficiency of our media system to untangle such complex issues as those brought up by this sometimes infuriating man and his public crusade.
As Poitras starts to unwind this story it seems that right away the important context of Wikileaks birth goes unmentioned. They could go back to the history of how America’s massive intelligence services were formed. Or perhaps they could just start with the story of the Church Commission, the last real attempt the nation made back in the mid 1970s to gain oversight and control of the massive power of the the domestic and foreign intelligence services of the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. It was both Watergate and the revelation of laws being broken to harass the constitutionally-protected non-violent activities of the civil rights and anti-war movements that fueled the commission’s fight to pull back the reins on the illegal overreach the U.S. intelligence services. The reform that came in the committee’s wake did much to curtail these crimes against the American people by their own government.
Subsequent administrations did much to challenge the Church Commission-era laws but none so aggressively as the second Bush Administration in the 2000s, especially in the wake of 9-11, the second Iraq War and the torture programs that they set into effect. As part of a sustained war on the press and whistle-blowers, the Bush Administration began classifying unprecedented amounts of information in an effort to obscure as much of the public business of government as possible. At the same time, as the government’s everyday business became murkier and murkier, The Bush Administration initiated Internet surveillance to spy on the public to an extent never before possible. The Obama administration sailed further on these Bush precedents of opaque government and widespread surveillance, and where Trump will steer them now is almost too ghoulish to guess.
Citizens and voters can’t properly make decisions about the direction our government should take if they can’t know the facts about its operation. In 2006, Wikileaks joined this fray, not as a radical development but a natural outgrowth of the whistle-blowing tradition in the computer age. Where Daniel Ellsberg’s searched in frustration for a publication to print the Vietnam revelations divulged in The Pentagon Papers, Wikileaks could bypass the middle man and electronically self-publish the documents. From there newspapers acted much like they always have, fact-checking what they could and printing the leaked information that was most verifiable. But Wikileaks became public enemy number one in all Presidential administrations since its founding, being a public stand-in for a much deeper demonization of whistle-blowers and government leakers everywhere.
And who makes a better villain then Assange, who with his haughty globe-trotting demeanor, fancy suits and prematurely white hair, looks every bit like the classic “I’ll destroy the world!” James Bond nemesis. Assange is right when he observes that the media and the public’s interest in Wikileaks surged when charges of rape were leveled against him in Sweden during 2010. Assange believes that these charges were trumped up in a ruse that would ultimately have him shipped to America to face the death penalty on as-of-yet unnamed charges. Whether those ideas have merit or not, it is true Assange’s infamy has greatly obscured the importance of Wikileaks work while the U.S. government seemingly stopped at nothing in its mission to bring down the organization and keep as tight a grip as possible on the details of its everyday actions.
Poitras’ film documents how celebrity culture overwhelms the story of Wikileaks, but it can’t resist adopting this viewpoint itself. The film gets at he heart of the surveillance issues in a long scene with cyber activist Jacob Applebaum, confronting telecom owners and Egyptian officials in a public forum about how they used the Internet to shut down public dissent in the revolution of 2011. These issues have very real ramifications for freedom and speech for citizens worldwide yet before the film’s end, it is the rumors of Applebaum’s sexual harassment that have the final word.
Similarly, Assange’s charges and his exile to the Ecuadorian embassy in London steer the film away from issues raised in the on-going series of stories Wikileaks breaks, involving the Democratic National Committee, U.S. Intelligence’s undisclosed surveillance reach, as well as the persecution of Bradley/Chelsea Manning.
Both a comment on and a symptom of this “cult of personality” distraction is Poitras’ coverage of the unexplained appearance of pop star Lady Gaga at the embassy. It appears she is there to interview Assange, putting her own stamp on the proceedings by demanding changes in wardrobe from Assange (“Something casual, like a t-shirt?”) and asking pressing questions like “what’s your favorite food?” All of this underlines journalism’s general inability to focus on the vital center of crucial public issues in their ridiculous drive to report “the human story” at the expense of humanity at large. We need illumination but instead get a “driveway moment.”
Perhaps if the mainstream media did its part in unwinding the myriad issues that the Wikileaks story presents, rather than just repeating the press releases our government uses to frame the issue, a more personal portrait of Assange might be of special value. But, as what will ultimately be one of the most-viewed documents on the hugely important issue of our battle for proper government transparency, it is a disappointment that Poitras’ Risk dramatically points the camera in the least important direction.