There are few things I enjoy less than watching someone tell a story when they don't know where it is going. Like humorless improv, Risk unfolds with what some might characterize as twists and turns, but read to me more like jarring shifts in focus and misdirection. Nothing here really feels purposeful or intentional and what begins as a globally significant story folds into a sordid tale of personal melodrama that offers none of the narrative heft you might expect from a "serious" story. All that would be well and good if it managed to entertain, but in the case of Risk, it rarely does.
Risk is Laura Poitras' followup to her Oscar-winning documentary, Citizenfour, which also followed a singular figure in the new leak culture they helped to create. In many ways, it is something of a sequel, with Edward Snowden even making a brief, but consequential appearance in this film. The footage she captures spans several years and follows Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, the online platform that repeatedly makes international news for publishing leaked state secrets and high-profile hacks. And while the film starts out as a journalistic portrait, certain events lead Poitras to go a different direction.
When Assange is charged with sexual assault in Sweden, the narrative shifts and Poitras starts to paint a picture of a complicated man. Through everything from his candid thoughts on the charges against him, to a sitdown with Lady Gaga (interestingly enough), the audience comes to understand this is a deeply flawed man who just happen to be doing things people find important. Couple that with his inflated sense of self-worth and you actually have something of an interesting take.
The problem is Poitras repeatedly loses the thread and does very little to give tension to this narrative. She also inserts herself into repeatedly--from doing voiceover work throughout the film to having an affair with one of the subjects. It's all terribly distracting and gave the film a made-for-tv vibe, which I mean with every ounce of derision possible.
The film is only revelatory if you start with the assumption that Julian Assange is some paragon of virtue. That, of course, is a starting point with no basis and Poitras does little to argue otherwise. He was, and remains, an egomaniacal internet savvy anarchist with few other distinguishing qualities. That we now know he is also misogynist and potential sexual predator feels unremarkable for a man who always seemed so deeply flawed. Those who valued his services always did so with certain unpleasantness swept under the rug. Post-Risk, it would seem like not much has changed.
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