One can hardly blame studios for the avalanche of films based on the life of Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange. Practically written for the big screen, his career as a hacker, activist, and whistle-blower is full of secrets and international intrigue. While most of these films focus on his most recent exploits, Robert Connolly’s Underground: The Julian Assange Story goes further back to explore the events that made him today’s most controversial figure.
Made for Australian television, the film’s modest budget is immediately apparent by just how plain everything looks. This is a bare-bones production from start to finish, but fortunately Assange’s life is thrilling enough on its own to overcome the lack of visual flair. Newcomer Alex Williams is scary good, a dead ringer for 18 year-old Assange, who back in 1989 was on the run with his mother Christine (Six Feet Under’s Rachel Griffiths) and younger brother. They aren’t escaping the clutches of the law, rather from his mother’s ex-boyfriend, a member of the infamous cult known as The Family. This may seem like an odd choice of framing but it turns out to be a brilliant way to introduce the first inklings of Assange’s proactive spirit. With the help of his liberal activist mother, Assange begins to see himself as a defender of the defenseless, willing to step in when those in power refuse to do so.
His family now settled in Melbourne, Assange and a pair of hacker mates form the International Subversives, a group dedicated to breaking into the most secure system throughout the world. Their stated purpose was to merely observe and never steal, but those ideals are put to the test once they see evidence suggesting a move towards the first Iraq War. As the secrets get bigger and darker, Assange only grows more determined to do something about it, even at the cost of his own personal well-being. He meets Electra (the excellent Laura Wheelwright), a girl of similar mindset initially, but as their relationship broadens into parenthood, she grows wary of Assange’s inattentiveness. Clunky Commodore and Apple computers authentically present the tools had to work with at the time, while also showing just how far he’s come in the new Internet age.
Anthony LaPaglia plays detective Ken Roberts, who leads a special unit formed to put Assange’s group down. But with the police force not even having a computer, much less someone familiar with computer security, he has to use old school gumshoe tricks to even get close. There’s a good story in their little game of cat and mouse, an old vs. young edge that is alluring, but Connolly doesn’t do anything with it. Instead we’re left to watch them both typing away at keyboards or talking on the phone. There’s nothing less exciting than staring at a blinking DOS prompt. Even worse, the cops are made to look like bumbling fools throughout, lost in the noise of screeching modems and landline phones.
Based on Suelette Dreyfuss’s book, which included some research from Assange himself, the film nevertheless takes a few minor liberties, assigning motivations never mentioned in the novel. Did Assange have plans to use the information at his disposal to launch a journalistic career? Not likely, and when presented with nearly the exact same situation twenty years later, that’s certainly not the path Assange took. Even with its slight rewriting of history, and pedestrian production values, Underground does a good job chronicling the early baptism by fire that forged Assange’s later life.