Nobody is a bigger fan of Wikileaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange than Julian Assange.
We’re reminded of this time and again in Laura Poitras’ compelling documentary “Risk,” her follow-up to “CitizenFour,” the Academy Award-winning doc about NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
Poitras was given extraordinary access to Assange, to the point where she even wonders aloud why he allowed her cameras and microphones into his inner sanctum for so many years.
In a word: Ego.
There’s no doubt Assange considers himself a modern-day techno-hero of the people, dumping massive cables of files and e-mails onto the Internet in the name of transparency and holding governments accountable for their actions.
When Wikileaks releases data, “it’s a contribution to the historical record,” Assange proclaims in one of his many self-aggrandizing moments.
“Risk” is filled with dramatic scenes straight out of a spy thriller, from Assange changing his hairstyle and putting in colored contact lenses to disguise his identity, to a (somewhat stagey-feeling) scene in which Assange and his associate Sarah Harrison attempt to reach then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to tip her off to an impending massive leak of information, to an odd interlude in the woods were Assange becomes convinced there’s … someone lurking behind the trees out there, following his every move, and the camera operator gives chase (finding nobody).
We get scenes of great, nearly absurd theater, e.g., when WikiLeaks journalist/techno expert Jacob Appelbaum takes execs of Egyptian companies to task during a panel discussion and challenges them to pledge they’ll no longer restrict the flow of information to the people. It’s a brave piece of grandstanding that elicits passionate applause from the crowd.
Later, Poitras informs us of sexual assault allegations against Appelbaum and her own conflicted feelings about him. (No formal charges have been filed against him.) At a press conference about a Wikileaks file dump, a spokesman refuses to answer questions about Appelbaum, which at the very least calls into question whether Wikileaks has different rules about transparency when it comes to issues that hit close to home.
The cameras stay with Assange as he takes refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in order to avoid deportation to Sweden to face rape charges and to stave off the possibility of Sweden deporting Assange to the United States, where he could face charges and penalties for Wikileaks-related activities. We see Julian boxing with a trainer to stay in shape, Julian gazing out the window — and in yet another strange twist, Julian welcoming Lady Gaga into his cramped quarters, where she proceeds to turn on a tiny video camera and record an interview with him (as the documentary records the recording of the interview).
In what is hardly the only act of theater in this film, Gaga tells Assange to change out his spiffy suit and put on a “dirty f—ing T-shirt” so he’ll look the part of the oppressed political prisoner.
Gaga peppers Assange with random questions from “What’s your favorite food?” to “Do you love your mom?” and appears to grow restless with his dry, detached answers. As Assange lists the various agencies and governments out to get him, she interrupts and says, “So basically, a lot of f—ing people.”
Neon presents a documentary directed by Laura Poitras. No MPAA rating. Running time: 97 minutes. Opens Friday at Gene Siskel Film Center.