“Risk”: a Sad Comedown for Laura Poitras

Still from “Risk.”

A few nights ago, I went to see Risk, Laura Poitras’ portrait—if you can really call it that—of Julian Assange.

I must say that I have been a huge admirer of Laura Poitras’ work, running from My Country, My Country  (2006), through a number of shorts, to the much-acclaimed Citizen Four (2014). My admiration for these superb and probing documentaries was only enhanced by a knowledge of the fortitude she demonstrated in the face of years of harassment by the US government, a story worthy of a brave documentary in and of itself.

I guess this is why my sense of disappointment with Risk feels so enormous.  It is everything that Poitras’ work has not—fortunately—been all about up until this time: self-involved, reachingly melodramatic and filled with unfounded innuendo.

In the film she plays upon—but without ever demonstrating the courage to fully explain, or for that matter, fully embrace—all the personalizing memes that the US government and its domesticated corporate media have used to undercut the legitimacy of Assange’s status, along with Snowden and Manning, as the greatest truth-teller of our time.

You know the story line: he’s an egotist, control-freak, and sexual predator mostly interested in fame and notoriety.

For example, she treats us to an excruciatingly long scene of Assange sitting with the unfathomably stupid Lady Ga-Ga in the Ecuadorian embassy that adds nothing to our understanding of the Australian dissident…..except, of course  to suggest that, the egoist that he is, he will always take time out of his “important work” to be adored by unfathomably stupid celebrities.

There’s another scene where he rails in a politically incorrect fashion against the women who, after willingly having sex with him in Sweden and sharing pleasant post-coital texts with him about it, decide, under intense police and prosecutorial pressure, to reframe it all as a matter of sexual predation.

Gee, imagine being angry and voicing un-P.C thought crimes about something like that!   No way you or I would ever let something like that get under our skin.

No, if you or I had been framed in a similar way, resulting in several years of life spent cooped up in a tiny room, we, of course, would always talk about the useful idiots who made it possible with cool equanimity.  Right?

Then there’s the attempt to slyly conflate these insinuations about Assange’s insensitivity and inappropriateness (has the world ever been treated to a comparably endemic deployment of two more weaselly rhetorical placeholders?) on such matters to the apparent temper issues that his sometime collaborator Jacob Applebaum appears to have with the women he sleeps with, one of whom just happens to be named Laura Poitras.

So, the implied reasoning goes, if Laura and other women had nasty break-ups with Jake where he was “abusive” (whatever the hell that actually means in educated/progressive circles in 2017), and Jake works with Julian, and both, as the film clearly demonstrates, have an extraordinary sense of intellectual and moral self-confidence, then the best thing to do is to be fundamentally distrustful of Julian.

And so it goes in this 91-minute train of poorly structured subjective mush.

What you realize in the end is that it is precisely Assange’s lack of a need to please people in conventional ways that most unnerves others, including Laura Poitras.

For a population now taught to believe, through Facebook and other social media, that getting “likes” is the be all and end all of human existence, someone who frontally eschews all that in the service of what he considers much loftier goals can indeed be quite confounding.

Does this probably make the guy a lot less fun and cuddly than the mass of other human beings serially seeking approval? No doubt about it.

But, so friggin’ what?

By all reports, Gandhi could be a pretty callous guy on the personal level. But what would moral progress in the 20th century without him?

It is a good thing social media, that hall of impressionistic and simplistically personalizing mirrors, was not around then to shadow the Indian leader and render its snap judgments about his essential humanity.

If, however, it had existed then, you can be quite sure that that the British colonial spymasters would have availed themselves of material produced within its confines by those with a compulsive need to nitpick his personal habits to spread memes aimed at undermining his work and moral example.

Thomas S. Harrington is a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of the recently released  A Citizen’s Democracy in Authoritarian Times: An American View on the Catalan Drive for Independence  (University of Valencia Press, 2018).

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