Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful. -Dr. Hunter S. Thompson on the death of Richard Nixon
Fact 1: Julian Assange strikes me as an extraordinary flake, a political charlatan, and a shameless racist pig who has played various Lefties for saps in the past decade in a strange cult of his own making that has at times made Stalin’s worst excesses seem like an unprogrammed Quaker meeting.
Fact 2: Despite all Assange’s self-generated fiascos that have made him as personally appealing as drinking the bleach he uses in his hair, the various Wikileaks disclosures/publications have been of tremendous value to our civilization and probably will stand the test of time as important primary source documents outlining the collapse of American unipolar hegemony in world affairs.
That Laura Poitras cannot make a documentary foregrounding those two points at the same time is a testament to how completely off the rails she has allowed herself to go with regards to the Wikileaks/Snowden/Omidyar cult. Her two films on the topic, Citizenfour and Risk, are not nonfiction pictures about one of the most amazing developments in journalism since the Pentagon Papers, instead they are before and after opinion pieces about her time first inside and then outside the cult. These films are not about top secret government leaks as much as a religious odyssey. Having been raised an Irish Catholic faggot, I know that tune from a mile away. Disillusionment sucks. When I broke with Mother Church owing to a strange habit of finding my lips randomly attached to other men, I wrote a lot of dribble in order to process through my anxieties related to the issue and, beyond a shadow of a doubt, I am glad that 99% of that crap has vaporized. Poitras, by contrast, has made her own personal exit from the faith into a cable television broadcast, which is bound almost undoubtedly to one day haunt her.
Watching her second film, Risk, one is struck by how the director puts more emphasis on Assange’s blatant narcissism as opposed to the actual content of the leaks. For all we know Assange could have revealed to the world Hillary Clinton’s preferred recipe for chicken noodle soup. What is the point of giving (I shit you not) Lady Gaga more screen time than the actual contents of the Wikileaks website?
Furthermore, we know that the original cut of the picture, premiered at major film festivals, was a hagiography. The 180° turn by Poitras, done during a late-game editorial session, made for the final break between herself and Wikileaks. The Hollywood-savvy Los Angeles Times explained in May 2017:
She first crafted the Assange material into an episodic series, showing some footage at the 2015 New York Film Festival. Then, at Cannes a year ago, she premiered a complete film — an up-close, lionizing portrait of Assange, occasionally depicting the WikiLeaks founder as a blowhard but ultimately presenting him as a maverick hero. This weekend, “Risk” finally arrived in theaters. But the movie you will see at the cineplex is very different from the Cannes version of the film — which was so favorable toward the WikiLeaks founder that, at a glittery post-screening reception, Assange deputy Sarah Harrison attended in full celebratory mode.
All this is done in the name of the most unscrupulous and self-righteous reasons, because Poitras ends up on the other side of a feud against Assange when their sleazy mutual hacker friend Jacob Appelbaum sexually abused another one of Poitras’ friends. Look, I am no apologist for abuse of women and girls and that is a very serious issue with me. But by publicly turning that sort of thing into the fulcrum for your production’s condemnation of the subject, you denigrate everyone involved and demonstrate that you are not serious about the topic or even the survival of sexual violence. Remember, Assange was being accused of similar violence years earlier and Poitras was A-OK with letting that slide. If you don’t have the simple decency to demonstrate consistency and respect all people who are claiming that they survive sexual violence, that means you are a hypocrite. I absolutely agree that changing one’s mind is acceptable in such proceedings. But doing so in a fashion that does not substantially own one’s own responsibility for participation in malfeasance one is now denouncing is nothing but advantageous and intellectually-dishonest sophistry.
Risk is not serious documentary journalism, it’s an Archie comic book rendition of such and it significantly re-defines what Citizenfour was as a picture. Poitras could and should have been able to create enough distance from her subject to generate a nonfiction narrative balancing aforementioned Fact 1 and Fact 2. Instead she proposes the laughable claim that those two notions are mutually-contradicting of each other. Such a claim is both demonstrably untrue (you are reading such a demonstration now) as well as condescending to an audience that the director presumes to be a bunch of cro-magnon mouthbreathers with the attention span and cognitive capabilities of a sugar-addled tween with killer ADHD.
Rather than aspiring for the kind of journalistic documentary ethics that were deployed by brilliant artists like Julia Reichert or Emile de Antonio, she develops what amounts to a Micheal Moore film with the mise en scéne attenuated to aesthetics of the Global Northern hacker community. Using ominous electronica scores on the soundtrack and kitsch imagery of computer technology to create the impression she actually knows what she is talking about (she rather subtly admits while narrating Risk that she is woefully under-informed about the technical dimensions of her subject), one begins to think of these films as a kind of nonfiction techno-thriller, not unlike the sleek-looking but technologically-illiterate thriller The Net (1995) starring Sandra Bullock.
The public deserves something far more substantial because Wikileaks, despite its fickle guru-leader, actually has something significant to add to our civic discourse. By failing at this, Poitras merely plays second fiddle to security state officials who put all their focus onto Assange so to obfuscate the public acknowledgement of what is disclosed by Wikileaks. And in so doing, she makes the random pathos of a particular white woman superior to the concerns of those within the cross hairs of the American imperial project. And in that instance, she actually begins to take on some of Assange’s worst traits.