The ordeal of Julian Assange goes on: there is no end in sight to his incarceration on remand in London’s brutal Belmarsh prison pending the renewal of the US government’s extradition request, which almost certainly would put him in an American supermax jail for the rest of his life. This film, directed by Ben Lawrence and produced by Assange’s brother Gabriel Shipton, tells the heart-rending personal story of his family’s battle to free him.
No public figure has had a more wildly fluctuating reputation on the political stock exchange, with the possible exception of Aung San Suu Kyi. As one media pundit says here: people have almost forgotten what they think of Assange. In 2010, the founder of the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks sensationally exposed evidence of US war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, a story pursued in concert with global mainstream media organisations including the Guardian. He became a liberal hero. But then he was confined to tiny rooms in London’s Ecuadorian embassy from 2012 to 2019 as a political asylum seeker, rather than face a sex assault investigation in Sweden, which he claimed was simply a smear and a scam to extradite him to the US.
The investigation was finally dropped by the Swedish authorities, but this proto-#MeToo row catastrophically weakened his support and muddied his image, as did his decision to publish Democratic party emails in the middle of the 2016 US presidential election campaign; it embarrassed Hillary Clinton and publicly delighted Donald Trump. Assange looked like a loose cannon, a celebrity disruptor-narcissist who had done his bit to put Trump into power. But this film is effectively an answer to Laura Poitras’ critical documentary Risk from 2016, which revealed Assange’s vanity and high-handedness.
Ithaka shows us how time and experience have lent perspective to it all, affectingly focusing on Assange’s elderly father John Shipton, and Assange’s fiancee Stella Morris (now his wife), who have doggedly fought for Assange’s rights as an investigative journalist and publisher. Like many journalists, after all, he is a difficult, flawed personality who makes mistakes. There is a rather compelling exchange here between Edward Snowden and the podcaster Joe Rogan, on the subject of how the 2016 Hillary story shouldn’t be allowed to dwarf his important, earlier achievements – although, it should be said that the Hillary story was arguably legitimate reporting. It would have been interesting to hear more of this exchange, or to question Shipton and Morris more closely about exactly what they think about the Democratic emails story. As it is, we see the gruelling scenes of Stella Morris trying to get Assange a presidential pardon from Trump: a bitter, humiliating and unsuccessful business that was a further turn of the screw for her.
There is a compelling testimony from Daniel Ellsberg, who revealed the Pentagon Papers in 1971, supporting Assange and warning that the US Espionage Act should not be allowed to undermine freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. Assange himself is largely absent from this film: merely a ghostly voice on the end of the phone. And awful though it is to admit it, by not appearing in person, Assange might have helped his cause in his film. His difficult, intractable personality became a problem. But he is not on trial for his personality; he never has been.