How much of your own life are you willing to ‘Risk’? Laura Poitras, Academy Award winning director of CitizenFour, returns with her most personal and intimate film to date. Filmed over six years, Risk is a complex and volatile character study that collides with a high stakes election year and its controversial aftermath. Cornered in a tiny building for half a decade, Julian Assange, the founder of Wiki Leaks, is undeterred even as the legal jeopardy he faces threatens to undermine the organization he leads and fracture the movement he inspired. Capturing this story with unprecedented access, Poitras finds herself caught between the motives and contradictions of Assange and his inner circle. In a new world order where a single keystroke can alter history, Risk is a portrait of power, betrayal, truth, and sacrifice. Risk currently has no rating, but does have scenes of peril against our cast.
Over the last five years, Laura Poitras has quickly become one of my absolute favorite documentary directors, and a lot of that has to do with her unbias sense of direction with who and what details her pictures. She’s someone who is fortunate enough to be there live and in person when the breathtaking events of a government that is supposed to have our best interests fouls up, and often lets those events tell the stories for themselves without steering the audience in one direction or another. Risk is the latest of that momentous roll by Laura, as she depicts an ambitiously wide scope of six years to depict the events that surround the infamous leader of the WikiLeaks. As an entertaining and educational piece of filmmaking, Risk falls just short of its CitizenFour predecessor because of its jumbled narrative that doesn’t just focus on that central figure, but also of Jacob Appelbaum part in espionage intelligence, and at times basic reveals that offer very little in the way of shocking revelations. From a technical standpoint, it’s as good as any documentarian working today, weaving its way in-and-out of a world of great fear and uncertainty, with a mellow-dramatic musical score to follow. But if you’re watching Risk for the same kind of shock value that CitizenFour adorned as the single best documentary of 2014, then you will be left feeling a little empty.
Right off of the bat, we’re positioned to understand that this is Assange’s story to make or break. What I dug about this particular angle is that Poitras’s film shows an unusually honest side of its supposed protagonist, refusing to hide the sour tastes in bites that we get from being slightly too close to his on-going conversations. This is a man and character that feels very human in that regard, so there’s very little in the way of manipulation to make him into something that he is so clearly and evidently not. It did take me some time to envelope myself into this particular story in the same way that I did Edward Snowden’s in CitizenFour, but if you wait long enough, the second act pays off with an unsettling cloud of paranoia that engulfs Assange like a poison. In this regards, I found the second half of the movie much more intriguing than the first, especially when this particular chapter of the WikiLeaks saga played into last year’s presidential election. Once again, Poitras chooses not to endorse either candidate, and her stance on both being equal devastations to the world’s well-being is one that I commend greatly for her putting her work before her own political admirations.
Props also to the subtle musical accompanyment that feels slightly influenced by composer Trent Reznor during one of his many collaborations in David Fincher movies. The ominous and eerie organ tones used in Risk audibly paint the kind of ambiguous dread and secrecy that hide behind the uncovering of each technological advancement that serves as a positive and a negative to our likeness. The movie also has strong editing, complete with narration from a particular scene to stretch the impact of those lasting words on each and everybody in the room’s reaction being played on camera. This is brilliant because these scenes don’t just play to one general impulse, but rather a dozen because the human feedback to discovering such betrayal doesn’t just rest on a single emotion. The establishing shots of Hong Kong, Egypt, Washington D.C and every other location that the events take place in are also capturing of the global scale impact that Assange’s trysts have taken effect of. Because of this, Laura paints a canvas of uncertainty that will really make the audience question just what kind of swept-under-the-rug details that their leaders are keeping from them.
As for the problems that I alluded to earlier, Poitras juggles two stories that while they are related in business sense, couldn’t be more different in directional pull. Assange is very much dealing with the snowball effects of his whistleblowing antics catching up to him, yet Appelbaum drops in occasionally to distribute the knowledge of countries whose internet usage is being banned by their governments. I certainly see the common link between their stories, but Appelbaum’s subplot often feels like it doesn’t fit into this particular narrative, trimming and cutting down Assange’s arc that definitely serves as the meat and potatoes of the movie. Another aspect that pales in comparison to that of its CitizenFour counterpart is the proof in the pudding, as well as the shocking reveals that will undoubtedly push audiences over the edge in one direction or the other. Poitras has usually never missed her mark as extreme as she has here, but it always feels like the strongest acts to this story are the ones that we hear about in passing. Ones that could certainly be illustrated better in capturing the essence of the development even further. Because of that, things do tend to feel rushed in this brief 86 minute offering that has only so much time to convey the information.
THE VERDICT – Risk manages to be capable enough of telling its own controversial plot with government mingling, but falls just short of capturing the riveting unfolding of events that made CitizenFour a must watch. Even still, the production quality does a solid enough duty in bringing chills and uneasiness to the audience at home, and Assange is the kind of credible protagonist who doesn’t have to be maneuvered one way or the other of the moral spectrum, instead opting for the human side of characteristics. Despite the clever title, this is as informative and as mind-bending of a documentary as you will watch this year. Very few films have this kind of gravitational pull. Check it out.