Potentially my hottest take of 2017: Laura Poitras’ Academy Award-winning Citzenfour from 2014 is worse than Risk, her follow-up released earlier this year.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of both. Which of the two is your favorite will be based almost entirely on subjective taste regarding the sort of of documentary you prefer. Citizenfour is the type of historical record that only documentaries can offer, where the filmmakers’ cameras are able to capture a seminal story in the moment its unfolding due to being in the right place at the right time (with the right investigative journalistic sensibilities). As long as the tale is told competently, it will enthrall audiences regardless. Risk, on the other hand, is less about the narrative and more about how it’s arranged, which requires a bit more thought than just getting out of the way of the yarn’s sheer power.
Citizenfour provides an invaluable document of the days and months after Edward Snowden became one of the 21st century’s most important figures; the personal access he afforded the filmmakers during such a tumultuous yet societally-monumental time in his life will be cherished for decades to come. But in my opinion, the primary basis for how documentaries are evaluated should not be rooted in the historical significance of what they document. Citzenfour successfully edits together hundreds of hours of footage into a political thriller, but it nevertheless merely relays a straightforward chronicling, albeit in an exceedingly compelling manner.
Risk by no means chronicles as game-changing of an event, which may have made Poitras realize she needed to employ a bit more unconventional artistry in its composition. Citzenfour relies almost exclusively on its sufficiently-engaging (to say the least) surface narrative, whereas Risk must utilize more subtext. Instead of focusing on the totality of Julian Assange’s life – which would’ve been the boringly standard approach – each of Risk‘s scenes capture a different facet of his existence. Taken together, these loosely-connected fragments present a vague portrait of the man; Poitras lets the audience arrange these cinematic puzzle pieces in whatever way they see fit to make sense of his character.
I believe that one of the reasons Risk wasn’t as heralded as Citizenfour is because the liberals who comprise a vast majority of documentary-goers wanted Poitras to come down much harder on Assange. She states at the beginning that her initial approach did not match the result, an implicit acknowledgement that her feelings for Assange radically changed over the course of the project, not only because of his behavior depicted in it. Whereas he may have once been another glorified moral whistleblower, his history of sexual assault – in addition to Wikileaks releasing compromising information about Democrats, including material that had a profound effect on the last Presidential election – turned Assange into another persona non grata, so much so that apparently a documentary that allows the viewer to come to their own conclusion about him is not what the world needs right now.
Yet there’s a profound hypocrisy in celebrating Citizenfour for its non-judgmental perspective on Snowden yet criticizing Risk for treating Assange similarly. This is why any desire to find morality in art will lead to contradictions that can unfairly color a work, both positively and negatively. Neither of these men is a clear-cut hero or villain. Poitras understands this – possibly more than her audiences – thus the reason she wisely chooses to let both just speak for themselves.