Redefining the Hero: Laura Poitras' 'Risk' and the True Julian Assange

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Courtesy of Praxis Films

We’ve been tricked by popular cinema, comic books and TV into believing that heroes are mighty and great — lacking all fear and devoid of any fault. It’s easier to write a hero as an all-around perfect man. But in real life, heroes are those who defy their greatest fears to accomplish something which goes beyond anything they could ever have imagined. Real-life heroes don’t lack fear, rather they act in spite of this paralyzing instinct. And their faults usually outnumber their merits, just as they do with any of us, if we get down to the nitty gritty tally of it all.

In fact, I believe that oftentimes, heroes end up being heroes despite their best intentions.

In the opening shots of ‘Risk’, Laura Poitras’ stunning, nail biting follow-up to her Oscar-winning ‘Citizenfour’, Julian Assange declares that “most people with strong principles don’t survive for long; we want them to survive and do a lot, but typically they don’t.” Perhaps in that simple, chilling statement lies the new, urban, 21st century definition of hero: A person with strong principles. There certainly aren’t a lot of those around...

Yet, no one can accuse Assange of being weak-willed or not possessing the most damn strong, absurdly stubborn set of principles ever experienced in the age of the internet. He is the ultimate hacker-slash-blogger-slash-activist-slash-journalist-slash-human-rights-advocate. Confined to the Ecuadorian embassy for the last five years as the result of a modern-day witch hunt, Assange may have lost his day-to-day freedom, but he hasn’t strayed from his course, has never given up on his mission to bring truth to the people. His strength, punctuated by the soft-spoken way in which he delivers his ideas, and his courage are the stuff cinematic dreams are made of.

Any of us living in a situation we are less than happy with, be it our job, our relationship or the city where we find ourselves stuck, can think of Assange’s situation, the claustrophobia-inducing living quarters he has called home, office and life since June of 2012, and breathe a sigh of relief. We don’t have it so bad, after all.

Poitras herself is a master at finding the human being beneath the legend. While both Edward Snowden and Assange have become fabled figures who fill our imaginations and color our perception of the world through the media, in fact it wasn’t until Poitras’ documentary portrayal of each man that I discovered the human beings within the myths. She narrates ‘Risk’ in voiceover and stays out of the way of her story otherwise, only briefly providing personal insight and anecdotes that tie the plot together. I felt like I was watching a real-life version of ‘Jason Bourne’ or ‘The Net’, more morally and truthfully tragic but without all the gimmicky car and motorcycle chases. Oh, wait, actually, rewind on that — there is a motorcycle sequence that will take your breath away in ‘Risk’, but you’ll have to watch it for yourself.

I don’t find Assange a problematic figure, perhaps because I live, love and work on the internet. Pressing a key to fill out an online survey or formulating a post on Twitter to me are the modern-day equivalent of a letter and a phone call. That he decided to harness the power of the online community, of which anyone connected to a computer, laptop, cellphone or tablet is automatically a participant, to disclose global secrets that were too criminal to keep hidden appears also straightforward to someone like me. The rape allegations against Assange, for which he’s wanted for questioning in Sweden, seem like the kind of bogus accusations that are usually built into the plot of Hollywood blockbusters to bring down the hero.

Yes, Assange may be guilty of something but again, who isn’t. And in a world where we are all spied upon constantly by our communications providers, bosses and countries, why the hell wouldn’t Wikileaks be allowed to spy back, for our sake this time?

Ultimately, Poitras offers up a poignant, touching, cool, updated and totally engrossing view into the man behind the headlines and the result is a film that has enriched my life. And a hero who makes me feel like I could try to be a little bit heroic myself.

‘Risk’ opens in theaters on May 5th and I suggest watching the film on the big screen. While it would seem perfectly OK to sit in front of your tablet or computer and watch Poitras’ intimately shot film, there is something to be said about viewing this bigger than life story and figure in a cinema, where it truly belongs.