Straightforward and effective, “Underground” is a made-for-TV biopic about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s formative years as a teenage hacker in Australia. Helmer-scribe Robert Connolly (“The Bank,” “Balibo”), an Oz filmmaker with a genuine and consistent social conscience, does an excellent job of dramatizing Assange’s unconventional background and his coming of age during a time of political activism and technological innovation, albeit taking artistic license with incidents, characters and timelines. Guaranteed to be one of the smallscreen events of the year when it preems on Network Ten Down Under, this timely, strongly thesped drama reps quality material for fests and broadcast outlets worldwide.
With the still-developing Assange story very much in the media spotlight, “Underground” brings more background to the debate about the WikiLeaker’s motivations behind such acts as his decision to make public classified information hacked from the Pentagon regarding the nature of U.S. bombings in Iraq.
After establishing Assange’s unsettled boyhood, spent on the run from the father of his younger half-brother, who was a member of a sinister New Age cult, the pic’s main focus is on the years 1989-1991 when Julian (intense, confident Alex Williams, fresh from drama school) and his buddies Trax (Jordan Raskopoulos) and Prime Suspect (Callan McAuliffe) form the International Subversives and wage a battle from their Melbourne-area bedrooms to break into the computer systems of the word’s most powerful organizations.
Assange’s freethinking mother Christine (the ever-watchable Rachel Griffiths) is a longtime antinuclear activist. She inculcates her thoughtful, computer-genius son with the desire to fight against war and expose government secrets and lies. We witness the young Julian’s dawning political awareness and discovery of how he can use his abilities to make a difference in the world. Unlike some hackers, Julian holds to the principle not to damage, steal or change the sites he illegally accesses.
Fluidly juggling several story strands, Connolly intercuts the Subversives’ exploits with Assange’s short-lived marriage to high-school girlfriend Electra (Laura Wheelwright), who bears him a son, and the ongoing investigation of the Australian Federal police into the hackers’ activities. Cunning veteran detective Ken Roberts (“Balibo” star Anthony LaPaglia) finds himself at a loss until he is paired with the young, tech savvy Jonah (Benedict Samuel), whose explanations to his boss also serve to inform the audience about how hacking worked in the days of dial-up.
Outraged by the number of non-combatant deaths during the U.S. bombing in Iraq, Assange obsessively enters the Pentagon’s computer system and rifles through highly classified plans, believing that he can prove that civilian sites were knowingly targeted. Meanwhile, the police dragnet tightens around him and his fellow Subversives.
Period production package is modest but solid. Today’s techies will marvel at the slow, heavy equipment used by their forebears a mere 25 years ago. And the hiss, crackle and hum sound effects will evoke the memories of those who once connected to the Internet through a modem.