Skip to main content

Shockingly, Oscar-winning documentarian Laura Poitras's new film about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange includes an early contender for big-screen comic set-piece of the year. About three-quarters through Risk, just after Assange holes up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London in order to dodge extradition to Sweden on sexual-assault charges, he sits down to face questioning from an unlikely interrogator: Lady Gaga.

Slumped in a striped easy chair, filming her subject through a tiny hand-held camera, her enormous bonnet gradually flopping off the crown of her head, the pop star works through her banal line of questioning: "What is your favourite food?" and "Who is after you, Mr. Assange?" Stuff like that. Poitras shoots the scene from a slight distance – further than the tight, intimate closeups that define much of the rest of the film – so that Assange's irritation finds a mirror in Lady Gaga's physical discomfort as she writhes around awkwardly in her chair. In a film suffused by the seriousness of its subject matter and the cold severity of its star, it's a weird, genuinely funny bit of filmmaking.

Yet like all great jokes, it lets slip a deeper truth. Since 2010, when WikiLeaks came to prominence by publishing secret U.S. government files leaked by former soldier Chelsea Manning, Assange has acquired his own pop-star status. Championed by anarchists, cyberpunks, hacktivists and freedom-of-the-press advocates, decried by governments and the mainstream media as a vain, power-hungry meddler and enemy of the state, Assange's public persona has been defined by controversy. Add to this the sexual-assault allegations and Assange's story seemed ready-made for tabloid press. In Risk, Poitras finds Assange in the thrall of his own stardom: loved, loathed, world-renowned, a political prisoner living in asylum in the Ecuadorean embassy, in the company of another of the world's biggest pop stars. And he hates it.

Risk feels very much like a companion piece to Poitras's Oscar-winning 2014 film Citizenfour, about American whistle-blower Edward Snowden and the state-sponsored domestic-spying programs in the United States. That film develops an image of Snowden as collected, self-sacrificing patriot and paragon of civic virtue.

Assange is a more slippery subject. And not just because his own declarations of virtuousness and the purity of his intent in holding governments to account are significantly undercut by threats of extradition on charges of molestation, coercion and "lesser-degree rape." As depicted in Risk – and as is apparent pretty much any time he's ever been interviewed or appeared in the media – Assange is vain, arrogant, self-obsessed and preoccupied with his own grandiose delusions of power.

The film opens with him and an assistant making a direct call to then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton's offices (after finding the number online) and insisting on speaking to her directly about the impending leak of U.S. diplomatic cables. At first, it feels like two kids making a prank call. Then it becomes obvious they're quite serious. So much so that they're actually indignant that they can't get the United States Secretary of State on the phone directly. The arrogance (and ignorance) is staggering.

One wonders to what extent the motivations of Assange and other WikiLeakers really matters. After all: The abuses of power and international law they've exposed are doubtless horrible, and should shake contemporary geopolitics to its very foundations. But then, what good is jeopardizing the legitimacy of the world's most powerful governments if those holding their feet to the flames are liars, self-important wheeler-dealers, maybe out-and-out abusers? Valorizing such people would be just the kind of revolving-door regime-change the U.S. government has become so adept at stage-managing worldwide.

Late in Risk, after he views an early cut of the film, Assange messages Poitras to express his disappointment in her, and his unhappiness with his portrayal. As the film itself illustrates, at some point, Poitras simply stopped caring what the all-powerful Assange thought of her, shaking herself free of his acutely judgmental, all-seeing eye. Perhaps the international community can learn to see the same.

There's no doubt that the world needs more iconoclasts, whistle-blowers and anti-authoritarian rabble-rousers. But it deserves better than Julian Assange.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct