Julian Assange, the creator of Wikileaks, still resides in Belmarsh prison in the UK facing the threat of extradition to the United States where he maybe placed in a maximum security prison until he dies. Leading the fight to free him is his wife Stella Morris and his once-estranged father, Richard. Ben Lawrence’s documentary observes the two as they struggle to manage the media, their own feelings of anger and disappointment, and the deteriorating mental state of Julian.
The film covers the entire Wikileaks story and much of Assange’s life through archive footage and interview. Assange’s attitudes towards secrecy and transparency are explored through conversations with those who knew him, curiously avoiding actual interview footage or quotes from him. This helps maintain the focus of the film, which is not necessarily Assange and his beliefs. However the film certainly portrays Assange’s campaign as righteous, highlighting the exposure of war crimes, hate groups, political corruption and crimes against the environment. The film emphasises the benefits and triumphs of Wikileaks in exposing the wicked, reducing potentially the most divisive and controversial aspect of Assange’s case to a tidy didactic narrative about the search for justice, rightly or wrongly.
Assange is presented as a symbol of free speech and journalistic integrity without exploring any of the sharper edges of his beliefs; the grey areas in which the wrong people can be hurt. The film asserts, as Wikileaks does, that sources are protected and only the guilty suffer, pointing to an Obama administration study that suggested that no one has lost their life due to WikiLeaks. The film demonstrates that Assange’s approach to the truth at all costs has cut both ways on the political spectrum but always holds that the only ones at risk of being exposed are wrongdoers, with no mention of any collateral damage such as exposed personal details leading to fraud or placing civilians in danger.
This allows for a much more straightforward narrative about a family broken apart. The film centres Stella Morris and Richard Assange and serves as a character study of these two exhausted and desperate people who just want to find justice and complete their family, and who are distressed at the prospect of losing someone they care about to martyrdom. Assange’s struggles with depression and his isolation from those who love him are difficult to watch. The desperation of the family even sees them journey to America in the hopes of securing one of Trump’s self-serving pardons near the end of his term.
Assange is presented as an example of torture on a grand scale. His ordeal and suffering is made almost messianic, his case explored as a potential deterrent to other whistle-blowers. Assange has become a folk hero to those concerned with the truth, and the tributes paid to him via Richard are often very moving. Lawrence has a great eye for the little moments of humanity that truly reveal his subjects. Richard’s weariness around the press and reluctance to explore certain aspects of his own story offer fabulous and often painful insight. But the film is not polemic. Rather it is quietly melancholy in it’s portrayal of disappointment and grief.
Regardless of how one feels about WikiLeaks and Assange as a person, it’s very easy to stir sympathy for the man. His fierce persecution is absurd and clearly demonstrates that the powerful have taken against him and are determined to discredit, imprison or maybe even kill him. The devastating impact of prison life on mental wellbeing and the horrific circumstances that await him if extradited are ruthlessly exposed. At times the Assange family lose hope and believe they shall never see Julian again. But the title of the film refers to C.P. Cavafy’s poem which states that though our goals may be unguaranteed, it is the journey that matters. This may refer to Richard and Stella’s journey to justice, or possibly Julian’s mission to create a more transparent world.
Ithaka is powerful testament to an important movement and one of the men at it’s heart. It’s a stirring drama that is sure to rile any audience member’s sense of injustice. However in presenting a very sentimental and unambiguous portrayal of the man, one can’t help but wonder if this film really did reveal the truth Julian Assange, his life, his work and what it all means for the future. Ironically Richard Assange even calls out the very human, but frequently misguided, urge to make complicated life events conform to a neat narrative. Perhaps a more ambiguous film would have proven more even more authentic a tribute to the important, but divisive figure.