At a key point in Laura Poitras’ Julian Assange/WikiLeaks documentary Risk, the subject narrows to Assange, and this is very bad news for him.
Early portions of the film give the WikiLeaks founder (he gave Poitras multi-year access) ample room to expound on his philosophies about the free flow of information, knowledge, and data, and he sounds about as reasonable on the subject as a 10-foot-tall radical hacker and publisher/distributor of state secrets can be.
Then comes a scene wherein Assange’s advisers meet to talk about how he should deal with sexual assault allegations raised by two Swedish women, and the camera captures the creepy drama of defensiveness and hostility playing out on Assange’s face. In one startling moment, his own lawyer (and I have to note she’s a woman) tries to help him find language that will lessen his apparent arrogance, and a contemptuous Assange mansplains her into an astonished, open-mouthed silence.
It’s a remarkable piece of footage – we sense that of all the powerful interests arrayed against Assange (including the CIA, the FBI, and, reportedly, a U.S. federal grand jury), the most dangerous is himself. He is a study in paranoia and contradictions – fanatical about exposing secrets, determined to preserve his own.
These contradictions were noted in Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, but Gibney built a profile of Assange from stock footage. Poitras was granted admission to Assange’s inner circle (there is extensive footage of his living quarters in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, where he has been granted asylum, avoiding U.S. and Swedish authorities). Her film spans several years, from 2011 until very recently, covering highlights in the Assange/Wikileaks saga: the documents obtained from Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, the Clinton campaign emails, and documents detailing CIA data-interception techniques.
Poitras claims not to know why Assange trusts her, but the reason seem obvious – she is also regarded by U.S. authorities as a problem. Her dealings with Assange and Snowden (the subject of her film Citizenfour) are known, so she is detained at airports, searched, questioned, surveilled – Risk includes leaked audio of an FBI agent implying that Poitras assisted in Snowden’s move to Russia.
Nevertheless, the Poitras/Assange relationship is fraught – it’s Poitras who first is contacted by Snowden, and Assange is furious that she refuses to share the documents with him. Assange calms down, until she shows him the movie she has made. At that point, he cuts off contact and tells her the documentary is “a severe threat to his freedom.”
This is not completely paranoid. The images collected and arrayed in the movie are strange and damaging. There’s a scene, for instance, of Assange's friends gathering to take turns trimming his hair, and the feeling in play is that Assange is happiest when his associates behave like disciples. Later, he suddenly lurches in front of the camera in a bathrobe, the Howard Hughes (or Brian Wilson) of state secrets.
He talks about the futility of acting locally, and insists one must act globally “to make the world the way you want it.” Assange, smart and self-aware, pauses to consider the megalomania of that statement, but does not retract or apologize for it.
The day Assange loses his U.K. court case and is forced to take asylum at the embassy, Poitras records his preparing an elaborate disguise, dyeing his hair, putting on sunglasses, and popping a cigarette in his mouth. It’s a comical waste of time.
Under several layers of deceit and deception, he looks more like himself than ever.