Underground: The Julian Assange Story
Ten, Sunday, 8.30pm
What's it all about?
The eagerly awaited telemovie about Julian Assange's teenage years as a hacker in suburban Melbourne, from acclaimed writer-director Robert Connolly (Balibo).
Adapted from Suelette Dreyfus' 1997 book Underground: Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier, Robert Connolly's movie-length look at the forces that shaped the man behind WikiLeaks is fascinating, absorbing, tense and ultimately just a little unsatisfying. Where's the next chapter, damn it?
Alex Williams looks feasibly like a young Assange, but his performance borders on mime: the young Julian, it seems, believed keystrokes speak louder than words. And when he does speak, it's not so much to chat as to push back against some form of authority – with brevity and, occasionally, with anger.
Authority takes many forms in the world of young Julian: there's the stepfather who wants to whisk Julian's younger half-brother away to join the The Family; there's the mother, Christine (a superb Rachel Griffiths), who wants to enlist Julian to her political campaigning, directed mostly at a US-dominated, military-industrial complex; there's the girlfriend, Electra (Laura Wheelwright), who just wants him to be there, at least occasionally, to help with the baby they're trying to raise together in a Thornbury squat. And, of course, there's the computer security networks of the world.
To many, the bits about The Family and the teenage pregnancy (Assange fought and won a bitter custody battle, an end note tells us, and raised his son alone for many years) will come as shocks. But for me, the biggest surprise – and delight – was in the detailing of the technology that made Assange's earliest politically-motivated hacking possible.
The ping as the dial-up modem connected, the tangle of wires at the telephone exchange, the little cup that you held over the mouthpiece to trick the phone into allowing free international calls (I last saw one of those in a London pub 20 years ago) were all familiar yet strange, like relics from the dawn of the industrial era. In truth, they were the bare bones of the internet, visible at the time only to those few who had the curiosity and know-how to go looking for them.
Underground is structured like a heist movie, with Assange trying to crack the biggest vault of all – the US military database – while an eager but ill-equipped cop, detective Ken Roberts (Anthony LaPaglia), races to stop him.
In this telling, there was no question of motivation: by the end of Underground, Assange was doing it not for his own gain – not even, any longer, simply to prove that he could – but rather because he had a mission that his mother would understand well enough. He wanted to prove that civilians killed in Operation Desert Storm were deliberately targeted. In other words, that the US was guilty of war crimes. Sound familiar?
But Underground was even-handed, even while granting the fundamental legitimacy of that aim. The scene in which Assange and Roberts confront each other about their respective moral responsibilities – to "the truth" and to "our boys over there" respectively – rings as true now as it might have then.
On the sexual front, Connolly was deft. Julian drifts from Electra not out of caddishness but merely because he is seduced by the siren call of the modem; the nights simply aren't long enough to hold both of them.
At any rate, noticeably missing from the plethora of title cards at the end was an update on the status of Julian Assange's extradition proceedings to face charges of rape in Sweden. Given the fluidity of the situation, that might have been a prudent decision rather than a prudish one.
In a sentence
A considered yet gripping look at the crucible in which Julian Assange was formed and, arguably, deformed. Brilliant.