More often than not, an internationally known freedom fighter will have a personality and temperament as heroic as the actions that made him famous. Just look at Nelson Mandela, Alexei Navalny, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, or — as controversial a figure as he remains — Edward Snowden, who for 10 years has conducted himself as a profile in courage. But there are times when the personal and the political don’t sit so easily in the same person.
Julian Assange is one of those people. From the moment he launched WikiLeaks, the renegade website that provided an anonymous home for journalists and whistleblowers to spill the secrets and dump the documents of global power, there was an air of absolutism about him, a bombs-away belief in the rightness of his actions that teetered, at times, into anarchistic recklessness. Assange, like Snowden, exposed important revelations about how governments, in particular the government of the United States, operate: the corruptions and cover-ups and collateral damage. Unlike Snowdown, he served up his exposés in an aggressive, indiscriminate way that seemed designed to place himself at the center of the conversation.
By the time Assange was accused of sexual misconduct in Sweden, and took diplomatic refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, whether or not he was guilty (the facts of that 2010 case remain murky) the Assange brand had acquired a degree of damage. On the media stage, he’d become the freedom fighter as left-wing celebrity narcissist, a smirking lizard in his rock-star white hair, like Sting as a radical philosophy professor.
Yet you can believe all that about Assange and still think it’s wrong — deeply wrong, not to mention dangerous — for the American government to be trying to throw him in prison for the crime of revealing secrets about the Iraq War. The new documentary “Ithaka” is all about the Assange case, even though he’s barely in the movie (we see surveillance footage of him inside the Ecuadorean Embassy, where he was confined for seven years, and we hear his voice on the phone). The film was shot after Assange was arrested and imprisoned in HMP Belmarsh in London, where he spent the next nine months waiting for his extradition hearing in a UK court.
Would the court accede to the demand of U.S. authorities that Assange be extradited to America, where he would be placed on trial for violating the Espionage Act of 1917? If that happened, he’d be the first journalist or publisher to be tried for that. The effect would be (and already has been) chilling. It’s basically the government threatening future whistleblowers, who from the days of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers onward have been an essential check and balance on the excesses of American power.
Assange, on WikiLeaks, published documents in partnership with The Guardian and The New York Times. Why have those papers not been accused of violating the Espionage Act? Because it’s much easier to target an underground agitator like Assange. The U.S. authorities have tried to focus on the crime of hacking, but make no mistake: What’s being threatened is what the mainstream media does, or is supposed to do — print the news it deems essential, even if it reveals government material it’s technically forbidden to expose. Even if Assange did violate the law, to say he’s an international traitor, guilty of espionage, is quite the sinister stretch.
Laura Poitras’s 2017 documentary “Risk” was a close-up portrait of Assange, shot during his early years of infamy and as fascinating, in a squirmy way, as Assange himself. “Ithaka” is less about the man than the cause — how the continued prosecution of Assange fits into the issue of free speech. It’s a more morally clean-cut watch. But it’s a lot less dramatic. The central figure in the movie is Assange’s father, John Shipley, who arrives from Melbourne to visit his son during the start of his incarceration at Belmarsh. Shipley spends the months leading up to the extradition hearing trying to drum up support for Assange in Europe.
After all these years in captivity, Assange is not in good shape. He has suicidal thoughts and feels mentally shattered; he has trouble remembering when his birthday is. But during his time in the Embassy, he got engaged to one of the lawyers on his team, the South African-born Stella Moris, and they had two children (whom we see). Moris and Shipley share space in the documentary, and the whole movie is a kind of family affair, having been produced by Assange’s half-brother Gabriel Shipley. (The writer-director is Ben Lawrence.)
I’m sorry, but family affairs don’t tend to make for good documentaries. Julian didn’t know John Shipley when he was growing up; Shipley left the family when Julian was three and didn’t see him again until Julian was in his 20s. Assange considered his stepfather to be his father (which is why he took his last name), though he and Shipley ultimately reconnected.
None of this suggests that Shipley showing up to help his son is anything less than genuine and loving. Yet as you watch “Ithaka,” their connection remains rather abstract. Shipley speaks mostly of what his son means as a cause, and though he’s a forthright spokesman, he’s a not a very dynamic one. He’s 76 (with a 5-year-old daughter), tall, bearded, and bespectacled, with a longish fringe of white hair and a bearing that makes him seem every inch the elder statesman. He speaks in low tones of cultivated courtliness, saying things like “The mass media serves only power and money, really…If they drift from that, they will no longer exist.” A little of that voice (and those thoughts) and you are getting very sleepy.
Shipley keeps standing up for his son on British media, but would anyone expect him to do otherwise? “Ithaka” takes a narrow view of Assange’s troubles, one that ultimately merges with a black-and-white view of his politics: He’s right, the American government is wrong. Maybe so, but what’s placed on the back burner is the indiscriminate nature of WikiLeaks, and the issue of whether governments should ever have secrets. Alex Gibney’s superb documentary “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks” (2013) took a far more balanced view of the Assange mystique. And the fact that it is a mystique is part of what clouds the issue. Assange’s cause, in my view, is just, but his vision of freedom of the press would be easier to embrace if it wasn’t bundled with a lingering sense of his own entitlement.