Action thriller and soapie drama format in “Underground: the Julian Assange Story” wastes actors and themes

Robert Connolly, “Underground: the Julian Assange Story” (2012)

Fictionalised dramatisation of an episode in the early life of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as a teenage computer hacker activist, this film plays as a coming-of-age soapie drama / action thriller with a brisk, no-nonsense style. Several events that were spread out over a number of years in Assange’s pre-Wikileaks life are crammed into what vaguely amounts to a 2-year period  to squeeze out the maximum teenage broken-hearts romance sappiness and the thrill of the cat-versus-mouse game in which it’s not clear which is the cat and which is the mouse. Family drama involving a deranged cult member is thrown in to add extra spice. The result is a very commercial and manipulative made-for-TV thriller ride  with forced suspense weak on characterisation and wasteful of the talents of a fine acting cast that includes Anthony LaPaglia as fictional police detective Ken Roberts and Rachel Griffiths as doting mum Christine Assange. The film has a muddled message about good versus evil and truth versus lies, cover-ups and secrecy but because it is aimed at the general public who are presumed to be not too intelligent when it comes to considering the moral implications of whether it’s better for the powers that be to admit truth and accept responsibility for heinous actions, the message is treated superficially and appears confused or obfuscated, depending on one’s point of view.

The young Julian Assange (Alex Williams) has more on his plate than an 18-year-old boy should have: being on the run with Mum and younger half-brother for several years already with the half-brother’s father Leif, a member of a religious cult led by a female yoga teacher, who wants custody of the younger boy in hot pursuit; and having to support his girlfriend Electra (Laura Wheelwright) who is pregnant with his child. Assange has formed a group called the International Subversives with two others and the trio spend hours together and individually hacking into computer databases looking up and reading information and printing it out for the purposes of political activism. In the meantime, Christine Assange runs her touring puppet theatre company and also particpates in political activism, pausing now and again to berate young Julian for apparently disrespecting her methods of protest while holed up in his room hunched over his flickering screen and typing furiously.

Meanwhile a group of Australian Federal Police officers, led by Roberts, have set up Operation Weather to investigate various computer hacking activities and breaches of sensitive databases, and quickly hone in on the International Subversives, following the members’ exploits and occasionally being upstaged by Assange under the username Mendax. The brief moments in which Roberts tries to come to grips with computer concepts and terminology, and corresponds with Mendax are quite funny, and there is potential for real comedy here: Roberts and the other officers might have realised they were dealing with young men and Roberts might have tried to offer some fatherly advice to Assange / Mendax about dabbling in areas where he might be in over his head. The narrative dives back and forth between the two plot strands of Assange’s messy domestic life and the chase as the activists manage to stay one step ahead of the AFP, yet the AFP learns from its mistakes and gradually encircles the trio, cutting off all avenues of escape.

The whole story would have worked better as a 2-part mini-series with a cliffhanger inserted at the end of Part 1, so as to allow for some character development that would highlight the script’s themes and encourage audience identification with the significant characters of Roberts, Assange, his mother and Elektra. LaPaglia infuses Roberts with enough depth and gravitas to give the impression that on some level he sympathises with Assange when the teenager tells him in their climactic meeting that he’s found evidence that the US has deliberately bombed a shelter and killed 450+ women and children during its attacks on Iraq in 1991. At this point the script is somewhat of a let-down with some terrible lines the actors must blurt out and there is no room for Roberts and Assange to have a more meaningful if very brief conversation or argument over whether the truth, however confronting, distressing or demoralising, should be revealed to the public over and above the need for national security. Griffiths is reduced to a supportive mother stereotype with some godawful lines praising her son to the skies before LaPaglia’s detective. Williams as Assange holds his own in every scene he appears in and as this means the majority of the film, his performance is quite impressive for a film debut.

The constant dashing between the narrative strands keeps the film and its subject and themes at a fairly superficial level, and the music soundtrack, suited for an action thriller, doesn’t fit key scenes well and sounds twee.

Essentially the drama serves better as an introductory guide to Assange and how his early life might have influenced the direction he later took. Ominously, the titles at the end of the film state that the Wikileaks’ uncovering of US military atrocities in Iraq after the US-led coalition invasion of that country in 2003 bears an uncanny similarity to the atrocities the teenager found in 1991. This suggests that the US government and military did not learn anything from the activities of the young hackers and moreover do not learn anything from past errors and outrages they commit in the name of the United States.

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