Underground: Toronto Review

Laura Wheelwright, Alex Williams and Rachel Griffiths
Writer-director Robert Connolly brings an engaging personal perspective and sharp evocation of the digital dawn to this biopic of the young Julian Assange.

The formative years of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange are covered in Robert Connolly's biodrama about the guerilla whistleblower as a young hacktivist.

TORONTO – Anyone who recalls fondly the wheezing sound of a dial-up modem will be drawn into Underground, but so too will anyone looking for personal insight into the formative years of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. A portrait of the guerilla whistleblower as a young hacker, writer-director Robert Connolly’s well-acted biodrama is a taut cat-and-mouse game, but also an engrossing look at how the activist instinct is born. Made for Australian television (it airs on Network 10 later this year), the film should capitalize on global interest in Assange to land international bookings.

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Those who have followed Assange’s eventful story will know that he was first arrested at age 20 in 1991, charged on 31 counts of hacking and computer crimes. Due to court lenience motivated by the nomadic existence of his childhood, and to the judge’s agreement that the crimes were largely victimless, Assange was fined and released on a good conduct bond. That arrest is the concluding point of Connolly’s account, which draws – with dramatic license – on Suelette Dreyfus’ book of the same name. Yet considering that the outcome is known, Connolly pumps the story with suspense.

Moving swiftly through exposition duties, the early scenes show Julian (Alex Williams), his mother Christine (Rachel Griffiths) and young half-brother Adam (Ben Crundwell) on the run from Adam’s father (Daniel Frederiksen), who wants to whisk the boy off into a cult known as “The Family.”

The main action takes place in the Melbourne suburbs from 1989, when Australian Federal Police became aware that telecommunication companies and other entities were being hacked by locals, launching “Operation Weather” to investigate. That task force is headed by Detective Ken Roberts (Anthony LaPaglia), who recruits computer-literate Jonah (Benedict Samuel) to fill the large gaps in his knowledge.

Using the code name Mendax, Julian and two equally tech-savvy buddies known as Prime Suspect (Callan McAuliffe) and Trax (Jordan Raskopoulos) declare themselves “The International Subversives.” There’s an adventure-like quality to the way their exploits are portrayed, operating by firm look-don’t-touch ethical rules. They can go in but steal nothing, cause no damage and must share information.

However, having been exposed from a young age to his artsy mother’s passionate engagement in anti-nuclear protests, Julian gets increasingly curious about the places where secrets are being locked up. As news reports chronicle the buildup to the Persian Gulf War, Julian hacks the Pentagon site and U.S. military command, where he finds disturbing evidence that Iraqi civilian shelters are among the bomb targets.

All this, of course, is the foundation for what became WikiLeaks, tracing the roots of Assange’s distrust in government and the media and his belief that knowledge of injustice should be made public. Connolly refrains from directly entering the ongoing debate over whether Assange is a heroic freedom-of-information warrior or an irresponsible subversive. What interests him and makes Underground tick is examining how one young man’s “unique gifts,” to quote his mother, blossomed into a galvanizing political conscience. Promising newcomer Williams, straight out of acting school, depicts this path with compelling focus and conviction.

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While Laura Wheelwright (Animal Kingdom) is appealing as Electra, the teenage girlfriend who becomes Julian’s wife for a short time and the mother of his first child, some of the emotional drama is pedestrian. Increasingly shut out of his obsessive computer time, and frightened about legal repercussions, Electra’s “I can’t do this anymore, Julian” scenes are standard-issue biopic fodder.

More interesting are the exchanges with concerned but supportive Christine, who acknowledges with a mix of pride and defiance, “My son sees the world differently from most people.” As played by the self-possessed and whip-smart Griffiths, Christine is clearly not making empty boasts when she says she has “tried to show him values that are bigger than him.”

LaPaglia, who worked previously with Connolly in The Bank and Balibo, has less to do in a stoical role that nonetheless is essential to the film’s procedural aspect. The actor brings his customary strength and intelligence to the old-school detective, for whom it becomes vital to crack the case before the CIA. While Ken represents by-the-book authority, LaPaglia also conveys subtle hints that he admires Julian's tenacity, and just possibly, his principles. This adds to the impression of Underground’s overall sympathetic and socially like-minded view toward its complex subject, without in any way beatifying him.

Working with cinematographer Andrew Commis and production designer Melinda Doring, Connolly captures the relatively recent yet already distant period with authenticity. There’s a particularly astute feel for youth culture of the time, before everyone was plugged into cell phones, iPods, tablets and social network sites. Scenes in which Julian and Electra move into a Melbourne squat are enlivened by blasts of garage rock, while it’s a nice touch that cops break the Subversives’ cryptic lexicon via Julian’s love of Australian rad-rockers Midnight Oil. Elsewhere, Francois Tetaz’s score is used efficiently to drive the action, which is edited at a brisk pace by Andy Canny.

What the film captures perhaps more lucidly than anything is the remarkable enterprise of Julian and his associates during a time that now looks like the dinosaur age of digital technology. It gives the story an extra punch that Assange was accessing U.S. military secrets before the World Wide Web came into being and the Information Superhighway was paved.

For the record, Connolly appears poised to step up his career to the next level, with the announcement made during Toronto that he is attached to producer Gale Anne Hurd’s revenge thriller, The Shipkiller.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Production company: Matchbox Pictures, in association with Network Ten Australia
Cast: Alex Williams, Rachel Griffiths, Anthony LaPaglia, Laura Wheelwright, Callan McAuliffe, Jordan Raskopoulos, Benedict Samuel, Ben Crundwell, Daniel Frederiksen
Director-screenwriter: Robert Connolly, from the book by Suelette Dreyfus
Producer: Helen Bowden
Executive producers: Rick Maier, Tony Ayres
Director of photography: Andrew Commis
Production designer: Melinda Doring
Music: Francois Tetaz
Costume designer: Katie Graham
Editor: Andy Canny
Sales: NBC Universal International
No rating, 95 minutes.