Written and directed by Ben Lawrence, Julian Assange remains a remand prisoner at U.K.’s maximum security Belmarsh Prison as he appeals an extradition order to the U.S. where he could face 175 years in prison for his role in the release of classified U.S. diplomatic files.
Where you might be expecting to find the energy of Ithaka to be akin to a rage against the machine of the American government, it’s surprisingly subdued. There are a lot of different topics to explore within the story of Assange’s imprisonment, from the act itself of releasing classified documents to journalistic freedoms, family, mental health and the state of the prison system. It’s a heavy combination so there isn’t really the time to do a deep dive into all of them, and mental health unexpectedly takes the lead. It makes for an interesting film but at the same time, is slightly disappointing to not explore more strongly what Assange’s fate in the U.S. means for journalism as a whole.
The tone of the film is extremely restrained and almost melancholy, focusing a lot on the struggle to keep going, both on the part of Assange and his family. Ben Lawrence creates an atmosphere that keenly demonstrates the severity of the punishment Assange is facing, and the importance of fighting against it but also the difficulty in not expecting the worst after such a long battle. It moves with quite a slow pace, and while it does well to capture that feeling of sadness and helplessness, it does also feel lacking in energy. However, it does strongly show the unwillingness of the U.S. government to show weakness, or their unbending pride, stopping them from moving past this case or seeking a more reasonable punishment. It’s quite hard to believe that they’re looking to incarcerate Assange in their highest maximum security prison, usually reserved for serial killers and those with a history of, and most likely to attempt, violence against fellow inmates and staff.
While overall Ithaka has a very graceful and composed feel, there are a few technical choices which are lacking in quality. Particularly in using archive footage, which appears in an oddly small ratio, and while it’s a minimal issue, it’s a touch distracting. As well as choosing to include footage of Joe Rogan, with the likely wealth of material to work with, it was a strange and unnecessary choice versus using reputable news outlets and videos from those with unique insights such as Edward Snowden. Added to its slightly tame atmosphere, it feels as though this isn’t quite reaching its full potential, calling out for anger and enthusiasm, but mostly finding resignment and weariness.
Ithaka is a solemn affair, capturing the toll that this ardent battle for Julian Assange’s freedom has taken upon himself and his family. It’s a stark reminder of just how long this battle has been waged, the severe impact it has had on the mental health of all involved and the brutality of the punishment being sought by the U.S. government. There are a few choices along the way which don’t quite fit, and the tone could use an injection of energy, as well as needing a little more focus to the larger issues at play to give a wider perspective. However, as a portrait of the struggle Assange and his family have been through and are continuing to experience, it’s surprisingly intimate and compelling.