'Risk' paints 'messy' portrait of Julian Assange

WikiLeaks founder lashes out at the CIA
WikiLeaks founder lashes out at the CIA


    WikiLeaks founder lashes out at the CIA


WikiLeaks founder lashes out at the CIA 02:36

(CNN)"Citizenfour" director Laura Poitras and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sound like a tantalizing documentary combination. Yet Poitras' long-gestating and evolving "Risk" invites almost as many questions as it answers, providing insight into Assange's eccentricities but shedding little light on the most pressing issues that currently surround him.

Part of that has to do with the structure of the film, which has been revised since playing at the Cannes film festival last May and will be updated again prior to its premiere this summer on Showtime. It's getting a theatrical run now, although given how the story keeps changing, still feels like a work in progress.
As Poitras noted at a screening last month, she is once again "very much part of the story." That includes reading her "production journal" notes into the narrative, at one point noting, "Sometimes, I can't believe what Julian allows me to film." Later, she concedes that the sexual-assault allegations against Assange are changing the film she started to make.
Poitras also discloses having had a personal relationship with Assange ally and privacy activist Jacob Appelbaum, who is not only featured in the film but has been accused of sexual assault as well. (Both men have denied the allegations.)
    Poitras even includes a leaked audiotape of an FBI agent labeling her anti-American, though like a lot else here, it's an enticing tidbit that suffers from a lack of context.
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    Produced over a span of six years, Poitras began chronicling Assange's crusade to provide a platform for leaked documents in 2011, and their interaction is presented through a series of awkward interviews. Assange describes himself as "ruthlessly pragmatic," while discussing in almost academic terms his embrace of risk -- hence the movie's title.
    As with "Citizenfour," Poitras' film about whistleblower Edward Snowden, "Risk" plays like an espionage thriller and incorporates a number of surreal moments. Those range from Assange trying to call then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- and seemingly expecting her to hop right on -- to Lady Gaga dropping by to interview Assange (sort of), a demonstration of his rock-star status.
    The story, however, takes a strange detour, with renewed questions about rape allegations against Assange, who takes up residence in the Ecuadorian embassy to avoid extradition. Nor is his cause helped by his dismissive attitude toward the charges, which at best smacks of callousness, and at worst misogyny.
    That alone would make "Risk" compelling, but the movie includes a remarkable gap. Having spent time with Assange and other adoring members of the WikiLeaks inner circle, Poitras picks up the thread again "Three years later," after the director had been sidetracked making "Citizenfour."
    The largely unexplained lapse is emblematic of a documentary that, without reading 20 interviews about it, has some major holes in it. The blank spots include what jump-started the movie again, Poitras' fleeting disclosure about Appelbaum, and most significantly, Assange's role in leaking hacked Clinton and Democratic National Committee material during the 2016 campaign.
    The third strand is especially slim. Assange does briefly discuss the presidential race, expressing disdain for Donald Trump, while characterizing Clinton as a "warmonger" who is "gunning for us." Those anticipating clues about WikiLeaks' relationship with Russia, however, won't find them here.
    At the aforementioned screening, Poitras thanked Showtime for believing in the film despite its "messy contradictions."
    "Messy" is a pretty good description of "Risk" in general, which has the ingredients for a rip-roaring documentary -- if, and when, it feels finished. Until then, Poitras has delivered a sporadically fascinating but finally opaque, incomplete portrait, one made no more illuminating by the fact its inscrutable subject doesn't find the likeness flattering.
    "Risk" is getting a limited theatrical release on May 5.