Julian Assange’s legal travails began in 2010, when Swedish prosecutors ordered his detention on suspicion of rape and sexual coercion. To avoid being extradited to Stockholm, Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, jumped bail and took refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London; today he’s in London’s Belmarsh Prison, fighting extradition to the United States on 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act. Yet “Ithaka,” a frustrating advocacy documentary directed by Ben Lawrence and produced by Assange’s brother Gabriel Shipton, argues that Assange’s most crucial trial is in the court of public opinion.
The documentary insists that the computer hacker, who’s accused of publishing classified government documents, is the victim of a smear campaign. What exactly those smears are, the film declines to specify or debunk. On your own, you may recall that viral stories about Assange have ranged from criminal to embarrassing — like when Ecuador said its increasingly unwelcome guest needed to tidy up after his cat.
Free speech advocates looking to hear a strong argument defending Assange against those espionage charges will not find one here — only vague calls to protect the First Amendment. We’re told the case is unjust but never told why, or even what exactly the case is. Instead, the documentary repeats three monotonous points: Journalists lie. Regardless, Assange is a journalist who deserves protection. Also, his family misses him a heck of a lot.
The film’s weak assertions hurt more than they help. Even those inclined to support Assange — like those who agree that releasing footage of a U.S. helicopter attack on unarmed Iraqi civilians is a moral good — will probably come to the documentary knowing enough to be rankled when it seeks to combat news media deception with evasions, half-truths and speculative accusations (the very weapons with which it suggests that Assange has been attacked).
A sampler platter of its flimsy reporting: While Stella Moris, Assange’s wife and a member of his legal team, maintains that her husband was never charged with sexual assault, both she and Lawrence neglect to add that the statute of limitations on such a charge had expired during his seven-year embassy stay. Moris also shows the faces of several men in a parked van and declares them government assassins. Lawrence accepts this with no follow-up questions. By the time “Ithaka” makes the claim that WikiLeaks published only redacted versions of sensitive documents — yes, but only after earlier unredacted postings were met with significant outrage — the continual thumbing of its nose to the facts may make you want to issue a few unredacted words of your own.
The doc is on stronger footing when it tracks the efforts of Moris and her father-in-law, John Shipton, to get their loved one home. With Assange unavailable, Shipton takes center stage as his onscreen avatar. (Father and son, Moris tells us, are “very similar.”) Bashful and soft-spoken when the film begins, Shipton strikes later as stubborn, secretive and messianic, likening his son to everything from Prometheus to a pod of hunted whales. Shipton is the kind of complex and contradictory figure who would have been fascinating under the lens of a filmmaker actually interested in unbiased journalism — one willing to press him on why he’s re-emerged in his son’s life after several decades of absence. Here, however, Shipton waves off any personal questions about their relationship as “an invasion of privacy.”
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