This account of Julian Assange’s formative years, adapted from Suelette Dreyfus’ novel, opens with a pre-text admitting that some details have been “modified for dramatic purposes”, an uneasy disclaimer in even meticulously-constructed features made for theatrical distribution, let alone those with the less-attractive plaudits of having first aired recently on Australian TV. Taking place in 1989 Melbourne, Underground traces 17-year-old computer hacker Julian’s (Alex Williams) activist beginnings, as he is raised by his single mother Christine (Rachel Griffiths), and falls for a cute local, Electra (Laura Wheelwright), while trying to keep the authorities at bay.
Director Robert Connolly offers up a tinge of The Social Network’s sexed-up style, but he’s not fortunate enough to have been blessed with a Sorkin-grade screenplay. Particularly weak is the depiction of Julian’s familial disarray – in which his father appears to run a cult of some kind, and continues to harass the family – only serving to reinforce the conventional movie-of-the-week format. Meanwhile, countless moments – such as seeing Assange watch Koyaaqnisqatsi in the cinema – feel like pointless filler; we get few impressions of experiences that appear to have shaped the Assange we know from the WikiLeaks scandal.
More interesting than the how-and-why is the film’s context, taking place during a time in which computer crime was nowhere near as prevalent; the cops are entirely outfoxed from the get-go, not even aware what a modem is. The staggering level of ineptitude on their part is difficult to believe, such that when we observe Assange and his buddies “hacking” – when all they’re really doing is guessing a few user-names and passwords – it seems far too simplistic. Prepare to sigh when they deduce with a contrived degree of intuition that one log-in name is “John Connor”. It’s simply impossible to believe that Assange had so much luck; the real mechanics feel diluted for lowest-common-denominator mass consumption.
In terms of personal drama, it would be easy to paint Julian as a neglectful father, but then, he’s at this point still a kid himself, so his struggle is understandable. However, it’s easy to come out of the film thinking less of the man, and if its aim was to make us better identify with the controversial figure, then it has resolutely failed. Meanwhile, as a thriller, the more suspense-based portions lack energy, failing to escape their low-budget constraints, exhibiting the pedestrian direction that we’d expect to see on a FOX crime show.
It’s a shame, as Griffiths is an especially luminous presence – as ever – and her good work is particularly wasted amid the slew of generic drama and mind-numbing proceduralism that governs this staid account of the man’s young life. We do perhaps realise one small, nostalgic measure of truth at its close, though; at least Assange’s computer crime seemed to have a political point, which is refreshing given the proliferation of baseless “trolling” in popular culture today.
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