Risk review – serviceable portrait of Julian Assange’s vanity
It seems clear that Laura Poitras’s film was originally designed in form and content for “hero”, like her Snowden documentary, and the movie tries to wriggle away from Assange a bit. (I should say that I have not seen the earlier cut, which was reportedly more sympathetic; the re-edit – itself arguably an admission of error – should perhaps have been far more radical and self-questioning, or perhaps this documentary should have been dumped entirely in favour of a new one about Chelsea Manning.) At any rate, it’s a serviceable portrait of vanity.
The founder of the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, once feted for challenging official secrecy and arrogance, is now absurd in his creepy conceit, paranoia and celebrity hauteur, holed up in London’s Ecuadorian embassy to avoid a rape allegation in Sweden. He’s keeping in shape with boxercise, doing interviews with Lady Gaga and waffling interminable double-talk in a conspiratorial murmur.
His relationship with Pamela Anderson isn’t touched on, and neither is his apparent sympathy for Marine Le Pen. Is he just another liberal who shuffled to the right or alt-right in middle age? Or is he someone for whom a clinical diagnosis is in order, addicted to the thrill of seeming to manipulate global, digital forces?
Poitras’s film begins as the rape allegations have been made public, with Assange staying with his entourage in a Norfolk country house. Amal Clooney is glimpsed at his side on the courtroom steps but invisible thereafter, and Assange takes cover on Ecuadorian soil within sight of Harrods department store in west London. He says the whole rape allegation is a scam to extradite him to the US; but why wasn’t he extradited from Britain? Aren’t we supposed to be America’s poodle? It’s an obvious question Poitras never asks.
We do see Helena Kennedy QC trying to get him to play the game, say he’s innocent but that women are naturally entitled to bring rape allegations if they wish – but Assange airily sticks to his conspiracy theory, to Kennedy’s obvious mortification and dismay.
During the US election, he became hated for releasing emails that embarrassed Hillary Clinton. Of course if he had released documents that undermined Donald Trump that might well have restored his heroic reputation. But the question never arose. It suited Julian’s hackers and backers to damage Hillary. And still there is no end in sight. Perhaps Assange will die of old age in his tiny embassy cell convinced of his martyrdom to the last.