Part of understanding Julian Assange is knowing that he’s spent nearly his entire life on the run. While he’s currently holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in the U.K., this latest roadblock for the hacker/activist is just another bump in a lifetime that has seen him constantly on the move. What many folks don’t know is that when Assange was eight years old, his mother married a man who belonged to Australia’s white supremacist group/cult The Family, who “recruited” (read: kidnapped) children with Aryan features to bring them into the fold. Leaving the organization in 1990, Assange, his mother and brother changed their addresses and kept an eye over their shoulder as The Family was never too far behind, and that’s where Robert Connolly‘s solidly built “Underground” begins.
Played by Alex Williams (who bears a pretty striking resemblance), the teenaged Assange is obsessed with hacking, but is also interested in something other boys his age are into: girls. He meets Electra (Laura Wheelwright), and within the first 24 hours of their flirting at a train station, he’s taken her to buy computer gear, slept with her, and displayed his hacking skills. It’s clunky, Electra is clearly pivoted to be the audience’s entry into this world, and given that this is technically a TV movie, there isn’t time to be leisurely about their relationship. But this is the only time the film ever concedes in quality level to the format it’s being presented on.
With this out of the way, we learn that Assange is at the time best known among tech heads as Mendax (meaning “nobly untruthful”), a computer hacker of particular prowess who has already broken into the Pentagon. He considers his hobby as a way to see the world without leaving his bedroom, and while the pranks and hacks of the past were mostly done for bragging rights, Assange is beginning to see a grander purpose for his endeavors. Inspired by his activist mother and witnessing the inefficiency of the authorities to haul in The Family for nearly a decade, he sees a chance to impact the well being of the planet. With the Berlin Wall coming down, it seems that world peace is at hand, but Assange is more cynical saying, “They need a new war to fight.” But before he can delve into geopolitics, he will have to take care of things at a local level as the Melbourne police have started Operation Weather to bring down Assange and his pals who are beginning to attract the attention of the FBI.
Leading this task force is Detective Ken Roberts, played by a frumpy Anthony LaPaglia, who doesn’t know a modem from a disk drive. The world wide web as we know it is still a couple of years away, so his team will have to mix old school undercover work while still trying to keep up with the quickly evolving online world. Connolly’s script handles the computer stuff with ease, never getting lost in techno-jargon, while quickly establishing just what networks consisted of in 1990. People old enough to remember bulletin boards will get a kick, while viewers who were still infants at the time will be agog at both how limited (and s-l-o-w) communications were (remember when 1200 baud modems were fast?) and how crude and simple it was to knock on the door of a bank halfway across the globe.
And while this is very much a movie that spends a lot of time with people typing on keyboards, Connolly again shows some prowess both on the page and screen. While based on a real-life figure, where the tempatation is to aim for the easier sizzle thriller elements, “Underground” never skimps on building story and character, so that each keystroke carries with it stakes that are worth investing in beyond the novelty of watching Assange hack. And aided by the surprisingly brisk, slightly tweaked out score by Francois Tetaz (“The Square,” “Wolf Creek,” “Hesher“), the computer sequences move with rhythm and purpose and keep the movie pushing forward.
While “Underground” ultimately clearly sides with Assange morally (even if legally, he’s breaking the law), no matter where you fall on the issue or how you feel about his subsequent efforts at Wikileaks (the seeds of which we see emerge here), Connolly mostly keeps an even hand with his approach. He can’t help but twist the knife a bit in the media’s side, with one journalist telling Assange that his readers only want 4-5 word headlines, and 200-300 word stories, and thus there’s no place for true investigative work. But on the other hand, Roberts’ drive to bring Assange in is never painted as misguided or vindictive, allowing LaPaglia to find a note in his character that might perhaps admire what the young criminal is doing, but is still focused on ensuring that crimes are punished.
There are many ways in which the story of Julian Assange can be sensationalized — and with numerous feature films and documentaries still in development, there’s lot of opportunituy for it to still happen — but as one of the first major productions out of the gate, Connolly and his cast do it right. While it might not be as comprehensive as some may wish for (and at times makes for a narrative that is perhaps a bit too polished and streamlined), “Underground” entertainingly and informatively captures a teenager at the cusp of historical, technological and journalistic revolution, and reveals how it shaped him into the man he has since become. [B]