While we are all familiar with the rise, and subsequent suspension, of Julian Assange through Wikileaks, how little do we know of his beginnings? How did he become so integral to whistleblowing from humble beginnings in outer Melbourne?
TEN’s telemovie Underground: The Julian Assange Story focusses on his emergence from hacking in his bedroom to breaking into US military computers. Selecting this chapter of his life avoids passing judgement on his current predicament as well as awaiting an outcome. Questions about Wikileaks compromising national security, and even the lives of some in the Middle East, are carefully avoided, by all taking place post-story.
The telemovie from Robert Connolly and Matchbox Pictures is clearly a sympathetic one. It admires his technical nous and pits him as a narrative, even romantic, hero. Given our fondness for turning rogues into heroes (Ned Kelly anyone?) this is not surprising.
But it also puts some context on his family upbringing, which a court would later take into consideration during a criminal case.
It begins in Emerald, Victoria, in 1989 when the teenage Assange, aka ‘Mendex 17’, is joined to his Commodore 64 like an umbilical cord. Hacking into banking computers with next to no security (because he can), he lives with his mother Christine (Rachel Griffiths) and younger brother. They are constantly evading Christine’s husband, linked to the oh-so-blonde members of religious cult group The Family. Christine is a protester from way back, and is actively against the US space race under George Bush.
Assange also attracts the attention of the Australian Federal Police, with Detective Ken Roberts (Anthony LaPaglia) getting a quick lesson on the emergence of cybercrime. None of his team even have a computer on their desks. What crime has been committed if it’s all in the online world, anyway…?
Assange and his youthful cohorts, ‘Trax’ (Jordan Raskopolous) and ‘Prime Suspect’ (Callan McAuliffe), spend their time delving deeper and deeper into the world of hacking, breaking into Telecom phone systems, trading hardware at the Fitroy Town Hall Computer Swap Meet, and eventually breaking into MILNET, a US Military computer system. Here he gets his first glimpse into the world of government secrets, a forewarning of what would eventually lead to WikiLeaks.
Concurrently, Assange also falls for local girl Electra (Laura Wheelwright), and dazzles her with his IT powers. With the story moving swiftly, it isn’t long before a baby is born and our young hero moves into a rundown rental with barely more than a mandatory working phone line.
Aware he is being pursued, Assange also sends anonymous messages to Det. Roberts via his computer, always one step ahead of being traced.
Underground juxtaposes the cat and mouse game between the renegade computer nerd and the cop with a mission, against the personal stories of a young romantic in a gypsy lifestyle. Assange is known to have moved house 30 times before he turned 14. He lurks within shadows, mistrustful of authority and lacking commitment.
Newcomer Alex Williams impresses in the lead role of Julian Assange. He bears a convincing physical likeness, depicting him as intelligent and silent. Underground constantly reinforces that any law-breaking is in the name of empowering the masses with truth. These are qualities embedded in him by his liberal mother, Christine.
Rachel Griffiths and Anthony LaPaglia are both effective in their adult roles, only coming together for one scene. Jordan Raskopolous (The Ronnie Johns Half Hour, The Axis of Awesome) makes a nice shift to Drama from his comedic roles, but Callan McAuliffe is difficult to understand with lazy diction.
The production design with its drab colours and clunky technology (watch for old Tandy electronics and ‘brick-style’ mobile phones) give this a nostalgic 90s feel.
I’m not sure what facts were embellished to create a stronger narrative (a credit indicates it is based on actual events) but nevertheless, Underground is a terrific yarn that elevates Assange as a journalistic warrior, and Alex Williams as a new star. TEN’s drama department has again delivered another satisfying biography, following on from recent successes with Hawke and A Model Daughter: The Killing of Caroline Byrne.
The ending should elicit Australian support for Assange’s current cause and history will decide whether truth ultimately triumphs over adversity.
Underground: The Julian Assange Story airs on TEN in October.