“INFORMATION WANTS TO BE FREE.” This cyberpunk maxim, originally uttered by Whole Earth Catalog publisher Stewart Brand in conversation with Apple’s Steve Wozniak at the 1984 Hackers Conference, rarely comes up in discussions of the character and motivations of Julian Assange, the editor in chief and global face of WikiLeaks. Assange has been an activist “publisher” for so long now that it is frequently forgotten he was originally a hacker—a very sophisticated one. Operating under the pseudonym Mendax from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, Assange successfully cracked the US Department of Defense and various US military branches, as well as top defense contractors, major multinational corporations, and other high-value targets. He was finally arrested for these activities in Australia, his native country, in 1994. He pleaded guilty to twenty-five charges but was released with a slap on the wrist, partly due to his apparent lack of malice or profit motive.
I mention this because whether you currently think Assange is an unimpeachable hero, the leader of a “hostile intelligence service,” a Kremlin stooge, or merely an irritating megalomaniac with great hair, his original mission of radical transparency has deep roots in the hacker community. Books advancing arguments resonant with Assange’s initial stance—David Brin’s The Transparent Society (1998) and Amitai Etzioni’s The Limits of Privacy (1999)—circulated as the first dot-com bubble inflated. Indeed, it was not immediately apparent in WikiLeaks’s early years that Assange was taking a specific political position on his leaks (other than “institutional corruption must be exposed,” which is Hacktivism 101). In recent years, however, with a few exceptions, nearly all of WikiLeaks’s releases have been at the expense of the US government. Assange and his representatives maintain that they only publish what is submitted to WikiLeaks and have no control over where the leaks come from, but it is difficult to shake the feeling that Assange has settled on the US as the Main Enemy in his campaign for global justice.
While there is no doubt that the US military and intelligence services have done and continue to do horrible things around the world, often to serve the more underhanded needs of the nation’s private sector (otherwise known as “American interests”), one does not have to be a Hillary Clinton fan or supporter to note the extreme personal animus Assange holds for her and the Democratic Party. Both are corrupt and in the pocket of Wall Street and multinational corporations––partly thanks to the infinite wisdom of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision––but no more so than most sitting politicians from both parties, including Donald Trump, who is ushering in the type of family-based oligarchic kleptocracy usually associated with second-tier former Soviet states and tin-pot dictatorships in Africa and Latin America.
Since the release of the flawed Assange biopic The Fifth Estate (2013), which appeared in the wake of sexual-assault allegations leveled against Assange by two Swedish women in 2010, but especially since WikiLeaks’s role in the 2016 US presidential election, Assange’s reputation, never saintly to begin with, has become increasingly questionable. His unctuous, condescending manner, Mona Lisa smile, and air of smug self-satisfaction have not helped in this regard. Unlike Edward Snowden, with whom Assange is often associated in the public imagination and who is frequently criticized on the same grounds, Assange really does seem like a self-dealing narcissist with a messianic complex. Snowden remains a socially awkward, self-deprecating Boy Scout, a nerdy Dudley Do-Right; he repeatedly insists that the numerous debates he started by releasing the NSA archives are not and should not be “about him,” and this is credible. It is hard to say the same of Assange, who basks in the spotlight of global attention like a pampered lap cat. If I were asked to guess the one man in this world who could naturally purr, I would name Assange.
A scene in Laura Poitras’s new Assange documentary, Risk, which debuted at Cannes last year in a substantially different version, illustrates this perfectly. Amid a milling crowd of demonstrators, police, and curious passersby, Assange is shown arriving, on foot, at his 2011 extradition hearing in London. The shot, from above, seems to cast a strange glow on Assange; he is brighter and more colorful than the masses surrounding him, and his facial expression radiates a serene, almost unearthly sense of satisfaction, as if this were the moment he had been waiting for all his life—all eyes on him, the world at his feet.
During this sequence, Poitras cuts in a voice-over from her production diary: “This is not the film I thought I was making. I thought I could ignore the contradictions. I thought they were not part of the story. I was so wrong. They’re becoming the story.” She is referring to the Swedish sexual assault allegations and Assange’s responses to them, which are fleshed out in the film, much to Assange’s detriment. In a scene with the female lawyers who are representing him in the case, Assange condescendingly dismisses the Swedish women’s accusations as coming from a “tawdry radical feminist perspective,” adding that they will be “reviled” in court (presumably for hampering the imminent arrival of the Second Coming). The lawyers regard him incredulously, one rolling her eyes; their request that he not appear “insensitive” to the Swedish women is a bridge too far for Assange. Poitras has publicly acknowledged that she and Assange no longer speak, and this is likely due to her inclusion of this scene in the film. (It was in the 2016 Cannes edit that Assange saw, which was generally more favorable to him.)
While it’s clear that the Swedish episode gave Poitras pause in her assessment of Assange, as it would any woman, the real impetus for her significant revisions to the film were the multiple sexual-assault allegations later made against hacktivist and former Tor Project developer Jacob Appelbaum, Poitras’s friend, colleague, and, as she reveals in the film, former lover. In the wake of this imbroglio, Poitras decided to reedit the film to incorporate unavoidable issues of gender and power in activist communities. The result is a fascinating, ambiguous, multifaceted portrait of Assange, an extremely complicated, often maddening man whose efforts have added even more uncertainty to an already dicey period of world history.
Risk is a far richer documentary than Poitras’s Oscar-winning Citizenfour (2014), about Snowden, partly because it covers a longer period and involves many more locations, but largely because of the personality differences between Snowden and Assange. The NSA whistleblower’s case invites moral and ethical interpretations; Assange and WikiLeaks cry out for psychological ones. Poitras seems aware of this. In another production diary voice-over, she says, “With this film, the lines have become very blurred. Sometimes I can’t believe what Julian allows me to film. Ego, yes. But also brave. He’s managing his image, but also being vulnerable. It’s a mystery to me why he trusts me because I don’t think he likes me.”
Nowhere is the nexus of Poitras’s curiosity and Assange’s peculiarity in sharper relief than in a bizarre scene in a darkened London hotel room, where Assange physically disguises himself for his initial asylum-seeking trip to the Ecuadorian embassy as his mother and other supporters whisper in the other room. Right before he departs, his mother holds up a note to him that reads “I love you. Money?”—an offer one might make to a twelve-year-old. Mother and son high-five as he leaves the room.
When Assange was young, his mother became romantically involved with Leif Meynell, a member of the Australian cult the Family, and eventually had Meynell’s son. Consistent with the cult’s dynamics, Meynell was a hypercontrolling man from whom Assange and his mother frequently fled, only to be doggedly pursued to their new location. It is easy to see how this type of childhood would lead to a persecution complex, with Meynell and the Family providing early rehearsals for Assange’s cat-and-mouse games with Clinton and the US intelligence community.
In one of Risk’s oddest scenes, Assange is interviewed inside the Ecuadorian embassy by Lady Gaga, who comes off as a supercilious idiot, primarily concerned with getting Assange to bitch about his confinement as if he were a spoiled celebrity on Dlisted. Assange responds, “I’m not a normal person . . . I don’t care how I feel.” Poitras’s film, very much worth seeing even if you despise Assange, says otherwise. Rarely has the personal seemed more political than in the story of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
Laura Poitras’s Risk opens across the US on Friday, May 5.