December 29, 2017 – Julian Assange is an intriguing man who lives in the shadows, revealing the secrets of others while hiding his own behind a cloud of glittering generalities. In this film, renowned documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (“Citizen Four”) tries to pin him down, but he slithers away.
Did Assange commit sexual assault? Did he knowingly work with the Russians to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election? Could be, but you can't pin him down and you can't really prove anything. This guy is as slippery as a greased eel. Poitras has profiled the two most famous leakers in the world in her documentary films, Assange and Edward Snowden. Both of them appear on screen in this film.
Filmed over six years, Poitras got some very impressive candid shots of Assange, founder of Wikileaks, and others in his circle. The most impressive shots show Assange dying his hair and escaping to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in August of 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden. He was wanted in Sweden for questioning on sexual assault charges. Ecuador granted Assange asylum, and he has been there ever since.
The film opens with Assange trying to contact U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 about the impending release of a large archive of U.S. State Department Cables. Wikileaks has lost control of the archive. An encrypted bit torrent copy of the archive is freely available online, and the decryption key to unlock the material has been published in a book. Assange tells a U.S. State Department lawyer that this is not a Wikileaks problem. But Wikileaks ends up publishing the entire unredacted archive of cables in searchable form on its website (this is not mentioned in the film).
When I saw this scene in the film, even though I did not know at the time that Wikileaks published the entire archive, I am thinking “how is this not your problem?” It seemed like a very strange thing for Assange to say. He follows this up with an even stranger comment, that the cables somehow got loose on the internet because of pressure from the United States government to keep them secret.
This film includes some of the most famous leaks Wikileaks made, including a classified video of July 12, 2007 Baghdad air strike by a U.S. helicopter crew against unarmed civilians on the ground, including two news reporters. That video and many other materials were given to Wikileaks by U.S. Army private Bradley Manning (who later became Chelsea Manning). Manning's court martial and eventual release from prison after nearly seven years is covered in the film. Her much longer sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama.
One scene shows a Wikileaks lawyer in a car with Daniel Ellsberg (he of Pentagon Papers fame) talking to Assange on the phone about the Manning case. She says the prosecution is arguing that a free and open internet could be used to promote jihad. She seems to think this is a ridiculous idea. Probably this scene takes place before she knew about ISIS successfully using the internet to recruit fighters and inspire terrorists.
There are of course some interviews with Assange that Poitras filmed for this movie, but not as many as you might expect in a movie that is really all about Assange. Asked specific questions, Assange tends to answer in terms of abstract generalities rather than personal specifics. Assange would make a good poker player. It is hard to read him.
This film is a kind of behind-the-scenes look at Assange and some of those who work with him. There are organizational meetings and even legal defense strategy sessions in the film. A fellow online activist, Jacob Appelbaum of the Tor anonymous communication organization, also appears extensively in the film. There is a discussion about sexual misconduct allegations against Applebaum. The sexual allegations against Applebaum and Assange may be viewed in a different light now because of recent events. Powerful political figures and entertainers have been brought down by similar allegations in recent months.
In the film, it appears that Assange dislikes Hillary Clinton, believing she is out to get him. On the other hand, he indicates he is unable to get much information about Donald Trump before the election. He views Trump as an unknown, unpredictable.
Since Assange is not a United States citizen, and he is wanted by U.S. authorities for questioning. Perhaps this is why he might be less concerned about the role Wikileaks had in influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential election than he might be if he was a U.S. citizen. He denies working with Russia, and he denies that the thousands of hacked emails from Democratic Party headquarters released by Wikipedia came from Russia. U.S. intelligence agencies say the emails released by Wikileaks came from Russian government-backed hackers.
I think Assange is too smart not to know these leaked emails came from Russian state actors. He is also evidently smart enough to limit access to Wikileaks information in such a way as to be able to make denials of culpability in this matter that seem plausible to his supporters. I think Wikileaks has been organized for just this kind of legal and political trouble, and has been for some time.
From what I read, Poitras reworked this film quite a lot after the original cut, to make it less critical of Assange, who objected to the film after seeing an early cut (his reaction is revealed in the movie). It is clear to me that Poitras has really made an effort to avoid making Assange look bad in this film. She has been more than fair with him, but the portrait of Assange in this film is probably not flattering enough to satisfy him or his more rabid supporters.
I had real problems trying to follow some of what is said in this film because of the voice quality on the soundtrack. The first time I watched it, I missed a lot of what was said. There were no subtitles on the review copy I had, but I was able download subtitles for this film at opensubtitles.co and that helped when I watched it again. So make sure your copy of the film has subtitles. From what I've read, the commercial DVD and blu-ray copies of this film that are for sale do have subtitles.
This is a revealing behind-the-scenes look at history in the making which features extensive access to Wikileaks and Assange. This film rates a B.
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