“RISK” — 3 stars — Julian Assange, Sarah Harrison, Jacob Appelbaum; not rated; Broadway
“Risk” is not the long-awaited live-action adaptation of the popular board game, but director Laura Poitras' documentary on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has more in common with that game of international strategy than you might think.
Poitras spent several years with Assange and his inner circle to produce a finished product that clocks in at 92 minutes. The film, which follows Assange’s chronological exploits from 2010 up through last year’s presidential election, is interesting if not always insightful, and intimate if not entirely objective.
Early on, we hear a little about Assange’s background, such as his history with a group of radical hackers called the International Subversives, back in the 1990s, but as “Risk” injects us into the life of the WikiLeaks founder, he's already in a state of hiding.
Poitras suggests that Assange didn’t really become a public figure until sexual assault allegations put him in the crosshairs of the Swedish government. Like Al Capone’s tax problems, Assange’s peripheral misdeeds feel like a creative opportunity to get a target who is frying much bigger fish.
Poitras alternates her intimate, first-person footage with periodic passages that summarize the major events happening off camera. We hear familiar names like Bradley Manning, who in 2010 released incriminating video footage of military actions in Iraq, and Edward Snowden, who eventually sought sanctuary in Russia after disclosing U.S. intelligence files in 2013.
We also spend time with some of Assange’s associates, like editor Sarah Harrison and Jacob Applebaum, who is seen challenging telecommunications companies in Cairo with charges of censorship after the events of the Arab Spring.
The casual intimacy of the film almost makes Assange’s involvement in world headlines seem hard to believe. At one point, we see Assange try to call Hillary Clinton to warn her about pending leaks, only to get tied up in the usual bureaucratic web that you’d expect anyone to find who just picks up a phone to call the Secretary of State.
At the same time, the intimacy gives audiences the sense that they are only seeing a piece — albeit a valuable one — of the entire issue. Poitras doesn’t spend a considerable amount of time on the ethical questions of what Assange is doing. We just watch him do it.
What “Risk” reveals is a very 21st-century figure, a polarizing public icon who seems as invested in his image as his work. For better or worse, “Risk” often has the feel of a reality television show. In one memorable shot, we see Assange leaving a hearing in the midst of a massive media throng of cameras, microphones and pressing journalists. Poitras shoots the scene from a distance, lending some interesting perspective to a film that usually wants to be up close and personal.
Poitras also inserts her own commentary, taking a role in the proceedings. Early on, she comments that Assange seems to trust her but not like her, and later she describes a phone conversation — which we neither see nor hear — where Assange berates her for a project he feels is going to hurt him personally.
As external legal pressures close in, we see Assange — in campy disguise makeup — prepare to flee, eventually landing in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where he spent several years, even while releasing DNC emails in the run-up to last year’s U.S. presidential election. Poitras’s matter-of-fact presentation of historical plot points feels objective and factual, but when she implicitly suggests that the WikiLeaks release gave President Donald Trump the U.S. presidency, “Risk’s” myopic view becomes a little more obvious.
In total, “Risk” is a compelling piece of viewing, as long as those viewers understand its limitations. Taken in combination with a number of sources, Poitras’s multi-year effort provides an interesting voice on an issue that likely isn’t going anywhere soon.
“Risk” is not rated, but contains some R-rated language and disturbing war footage; running time: 92 minutes.