- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Documentarian Laura Poitras (“Citizenfour,” about Edward Snowden) returns to the well of controversy with “Risk,” a film years in the making that follows WikieLeaks founder Julian Assange from little-known outsider free speech advocate to, depending on your beliefs, either the world’s most hated or heroic man.

Ms. Poitras, no stranger to getting behind the veil of opaque subjects, opens her film with Mr. Assange and his senior editor, Sarah Harrison, in the early-2010s seemingly trying to do the “right” thing by letting then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton know that a trove of documents showing unclassified State Department cables will soon be made public on their site. This scene is simultaneously confusing and impressive, as at first we are perhaps meant to believe that the WikiLeaks forces might see the dangers their own revelations presage or — perhaps more darkly, and not so subtly — holding the U.S. intelligence apparatus for ransom.

Facing Ms. Poitras‘ camera, Mr. Assange comes across at first as a mercurial messenger obeying dictums within him that perhaps even he cannot understand, but as the years shown in the film march on, he transforms from perhaps reluctant antihero to at first, arguably, a criminal, and then, unarguably, sociopathic. Accusations of sexual assault from Sweden swirl, and Mr. Assange, on camera, decries the conspiracy of a “feminist element” meant to besmirch him, and says, without irony, how one accuser can be discredited off as a liar, but more than one … ?

Ms. Poitras takes a somewhat less-than-passive role in “Risk,” intoning in voiceover her beliefs that the CIA or FBI are watching her — in one of the more unnerving passages, she relates returning to find her New York apartment door ajar — and even admitting to an affair with one of her own subjects.

This is an interesting, if distracting, development, and removes some of the aspiration to unbiased reporting on Mr. Assange, Mr. Snowden — who puts in an appearance here — and other critics of online censorship seen in the doc, and will likely stoke more debates as to the Heisenberg principle.

Little matter, however, as it is Mr. Assange, whose cold, distant, but self-assured personality, more so than his controversial aims at transparency, who emerges as the ever-fascinating center of “Risk.” With that unmistakable shock of white hair and those vacant, almost disinterested but calculating eyes, Mr. Assange all but ignores Ms. Poitras‘ camera, calmly intoning in less-than-introspective tones, still haunted by his native Australia, that his work may well undermine the world’s secrecy business.

Whether or not this cause is just, Ms. Poitras tries admirably to push her subject and not the attendant controversy into center frame, and what emerges there is a frighteningly detached personality consumed with his own righteousness, no matter that he has been holed up in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy for years to evade the sex assault charges — or, he fears, even extradition to the U.S. to answer for his deeds.

Even by the film’s end, Ms. Poitras intones that she and her subject have fallen out, perhaps less so to do with the construction of her narrative than with a man who is likely incapable of empathy, be it through art — even if it is about him — or the harm that his work may have wrought.

Laura Poitras will appear for a Q&A at the District’s Landmark E Street Cinema Thursday for a 7 p.m. screening. “Risk” opens wide at District-area cinemas Friday. No rating, but contains fleeting four-letter words and the iciness of a sociopathic personality.

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