Risk – Director Laura Poitras stunned the cinema world in 2014 with her Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour”, featuring an exclusive on camera interview with Edward Snowden, the famous whistleblower from the CIA and NSA. Snowden may have been only sitting on his bed in a nondescript Hong Kong hotel room, but over the course of the movie’s 1 hour and 54 minutes, he reveals some of the most incredible cyber secrets.
For instance, the government can tap a landline and listen to one’s conversations, even when the phone is hung up. That does not even scratch the surface though, because more egregious spying can occur on one’s laptop or cell phone. Not to go into details, but there are very good reasons why you will regularly see a piece of tape placed over a laptop camera belonging to a blogger in your local coffee shop.
Yes, “Citizenfour” is an absolute stunner.
Now, Poitras turns her attention to another whistleblower, Julian Assange, one with different methods, but who still attempts to seek out the truth. Unlike Mr. Assange’s impact on the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, this documentary about his work from 2011 to 2016 plays more like a curiosity than a revelation.
As the film opens, we see Assange and his WikiLeaks editor Sarah Harrison sitting on a phone call with the U.S. State Department. Apparently, the department’s password has been exposed, and Assange and Harrison are contacting the department – led by Hillary Clinton – to warn them of the breach.
Assange calmly sets the conversation’s tone to an unknown (to us) department head by saying, “We don’t have a problem. You have a problem.”
It is a telltale moment, because one can easily see that this outsider has more command or immediate knowledge of the U.S. State Department security than the organization itself. Additionally, the department appears to shrug off Assange’s warning, and as a bit of foreshadowing, one wonders if he took that slight – from five years into the past – personally during the 2016 election.
Although Poitras garners heart-stopping-close access to Assange’s world, there are very few of these “aha” moments. We do see how his operation is managed, which includes a very astute cyber soldier, Jacob Appelbaum, and at least three lawyers who seem to regularly advise Assange. Poitras also burns some calories on something called The Tor Project, but the group’s purpose is not entirely clear. All in all, Poitras organically provides the Cliff Notes to WikiLeaks’ figurative human resource manual, but not necessarily its operations, which is the most fascinating slice of Assange’s organization.
What are its motivations? How does it decide which information to acquire? Who are its contacts, and how does it work?
We never really get the slightest of answers to any of these questions. Actually, the closest moment to understand what makes Assange’s tick is a surreal interview with the most unlikely of people, Lady Gaga. Poitras grabs footage of Lady Gaga casually asking Assange questions – in his living room – about his personal life and feelings.
Poitras does cover more of Assange’s personal living space regarding the sexual harassment claims against him, and this legal complication actually forces him to take asylum in Ecuador’s embassy in London. Although one might have casually heard about these charges, Poitras takes an unflinching look at the repercussions of them. You see, like Snowden, Assange is ironically caged in a comfortable, confined space.
Sure “Risk” takes lots of risks with access and space, which result in security encroachments on Poitras at various airports and border stops, and this film feels like a personal essay of her filmmaker/subject relationship with Assange. Unlike “Citizenfour”, however, “Risk” does not really offer a jaw-dropping moment, other than witnessing the most random Lady Gaga sighting of her career.
Well, for that, I almost kept my “Poker Face”.