What made Laura Poitras’ Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour such a triumph, was it’s historical and societal significance. Engaging throughout, it was the fact the esteemed documentarian was first on the scene – the mouthpiece between Edward Snowden and the rest of the world. Conversely, it’s the distinct lack of originality in her latest endeavour Risk which proves to be an issue – for covering Julian Assange is a somewhat tired cinematic stomping ground, and while admirable in her conviction and courage as a filmmaker, there’s little here we haven’t seen before.
Filmed across six years, Poitras is given unprecedented access to the Wikileaks founder, beginning when hiding away in Norfolk, not long before he sought refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. With sexual offences against his name – and a potential extradition to Sweden to face up to his accusations, we watch on as Assange continues to appease his loyal fan-base by releasing information through his organisation. We see the implications this has on the groundbreaking Presidential election of last year, while during the course of the film we even briefly cast our eye on Snowden himself, who Poitras left this project to film halfway through.
One of the reasons why Assange makes for such a compelling subject, is the very same that makes him a rather tiresome one – which is that we so rarely feel as though we’re witnessing the real man himself. His elusive presence and this persona he perpetuates is almost mesmerising to watch, but at the same time we never feel as though we get to the truth of the man, so rarely convinced we know exactly who he is. Arguably one of the times we feel an element of Assange is revealed is during his car-crash interview with American pop-star Lady Gaga, who makes a brief appearance in the movie. It’s just a shame Poitras stopped rolling before Pamela Anderson came into the picture.
Having seen Wikileaks extensively covered in the work of Alex Gibney, not to mention the awful Benedict Cumberbatch starring biopic of Assange back in 2013 – the opening act is simply covering old ground. But as Poitras follows her subject into the Ecuadorian embassy, the film becomes somewhat more interesting, not so much about Assange’s commitment to his now-flawed cause, but just to see how spending such a vast amount of time in a confined space indoors can take a toll on your psyche.
There’s also a lack of Poitras in the film. Her production journal, which she narrates sporadically across the movie, represents the more intriguing elements to the piece, as we see how he tries to manipulate the journalist, as we hear first-hand her own experiences with this curious being. But again they feature too infrequently, in a documentary that proves to be something of a balancing act, with so much going on all at once.
It’s within the final act where Risk comes to life, as we see the cross-over between Assange, Snowden and Trump – it’s just a shame we take such a long time to reach this point. As such, the closing credits seem to roll too soon, just as we feel the film is starting to pick up some real flow. With so much covered in the final quarter of an hour, it’s hard, in spite of the film’s shortcomings, not to want a follow-up. And it’s fair to say that if that was to happen, there’s nobody quite so well placed (and audacious) to do it, as Poitras.
Risk is released on June 30th