It’s always instructive to compare a director’s latest film with their previous efforts, and this is certainly the case with Laura Poitras’ Risk. Her first feature since 2014’s Citizenfour, the differences between the two are in this case more telling than the similarities.
While both documentaries rely on unparalleled access to people (Julian Assange and Edward Snowden) who have risked their lives to uncover mass surveillance and official malfeasance, Poitras is far less confident in her portrait of the former than of the latter. Though this makes Risk a messier film than its predecessor, it also makes for a more fascinating and intellectually challenging watch.
In Citizenfour, Poitras and fellow journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill are fully behind the heroic Snowden as he plans his secret getaway from a cramped Hong Kong hotel room, having selflessly thrown away a comfortable life as a computer technician for the greater good. The experience is the documentary equivalent of a spy thriller; thrilling, but rather one-dimensional. When it comes to Assange however, Poitras paints an altogether more complex and ambiguous picture.
This is no surprise given the differences between the two men’s personalities and the ways in which their respective fates have developed. While Snowden comes across as an affable and well meaning if slightly naïve fellow, in Risk Assange feels shifty and guarded, as if he has something unpleasant to hide. The fact that he is accused of both sexual assault and helping the Russians influence the 2016 American election does him no good either.
It seems that Poitras is less bothered by the sexual allegations than Assange’s role in helping Donald Trump become president, given that Risk was only substantially changed after the election – long after the rape investigation had become public knowledge. But although the original cut of the film was criticised for being excessively adulatory, this does not apply to version 2.0.
While some aspects of Assange’s journey are rather exciting, such as when he releases a trove of confidential data on the Syrian conflict or becomes a refugee in the Ecuadorian embassy, others – including his hubris and inability to convincingly explain his motivations – are alienating. Poitras also frequently expresses scepticism in voiceover commentary, in which she describes the mutual distrust her and Assange both share. Given the ominous clouds that continue to loom over Assange’s as yet undetermined future, Risk’s inconsistency and incompleteness feel quite appropriate.
Laura Poitras’ Risk is available now on DVD, Blu-ray & On Demand. riskfilm.co.uk
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka