Dawn of the Assange cult


Underground: The Julian Assange Story (M). Director: Robert Connolly. Starring: Anthony LaPaglia, Rachel Griffiths, Alex Williams, Laura Wheelwright. 90 minutes

The subtitle could easily be 'a' as opposed to 'the Julian Assange story'. It focuses on a very specific period of the life of the Wikileaks founder (lately turned would-be Australian politician), that being his fledgling law-flouting shenanigans in 1989 as a prodigious young hacker from the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne.

It's also fair to say it is a yarn spun specially for those who see Assange not as a cyber crook but as larrikin hero — Ned Kelly armed with a dial-up modem — sticking it to the stodgy local police force (represented here by a neatly mulletted LaPaglia) and inspired by his activist mum Christine (the ever wonderful Griffiths) to disrupt the dodgy deeds of no lesser international supervillain than the US military at the dawn of the first Gulf War.

Writer-director Robert Connolly's film — which originally aired last year on Channel Ten and is about to embark on a national theatrical tour and series of events* — makes a deeply sympathetic character of Assange as it explores these early experiences as a softly spoken maverick and computer genius.

The roots of his civil disobedience are linked to his derision of Christine's penchant for seemingly ineffective peaceful protest. While his family's run-ins with the mountain cult of which they were one-time members adds a sinister spin to the film and serves to test the character's faith in traditional forms of law enforcement, while also hinting at lasting psychological trauma in Assange that may contribute to his later persona as a lone avenger.

The character is given further vulnerability and basic human fallibility by the portrayal of his youthful affair with the young mother of his first son (Wheelright), who is initially enamoured to his passion and genius but becomes frustrated and alienated by his single mindedness. In the casting of newcomer Williams as Assange Connolly has found the perfect combination of boyish charm with a sense of fierce genius and introverted charisma.

One of the film's great charms is its abundance of period detail, in particular of 1989 computer technology, which is at once laughably nostalgic but also revelatory of the ends to which Assange and his fellow pioneer hackers were able to bend this seemingly archaic technology, three years before the launch of the World Wide Web.

During one somewhat heavy handed scene Christine insists that her most important role as a parent was to instill Julian with values, so that 'wherever he lands' he will have a keen sense of right and wrong. She makes this statement of faith to an investigating police officer who is closing in on the teenage virtual-vigilante.

The scene cuts through to the core ethical question raised by Wikileaks and all activities of civil disobedience: can what is 'right' transcend what is 'legal'? Judging by this unerringly sympathetic portrayal it seems safe to say that Connolly, for one, firmly believes that yes, it can, and should.

The dialogue is clunky at times, but the sharp pace, gripping performances and immersive naturalistic production design mean Underground will sit as comfortably on art house screens as it did on lounge room TV sets.

*The film will enjoy a limited theatrical run under a new distribution model pioneered by Connolly called Cinema Plus, which combines public screenings with in-cinema events such as panel discussions and workshops. It kicks off in Melbourne this weekend with events to follow in other cities in March and April (full details online).

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Julian Assange, Wikileaks, Rob Connolly



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Existing comments

This was a love story - in all senses (sex, drugs, retro technology, Aussie rebel/larrikin, mother/son. bumbling spooks and cops. I enjoyed it thoroughly. It's got some doco elements - as you would expect from Connolly - but it's a great show. And anything heavier simply would have turned off the Assange generation. I don't think Connolly has ever made a show that doesn't work. Rats in the Ranks, Mrs Careys Concert, Balibo, Facing the Music, First Contact, The Patient in Room 18, Black Harvest and Joe Leahy’s Neighbors have all been great. We ned an Assange cult in Australia right now - and I wish someone would tart one for poor Bradley Manning as well.
Joseph Davis | 15 March 2013

"The scene cuts through to the core ethical question raised by Wikileaks and all activities of civil disobedience: can what is 'right' transcend what is 'legal'?" I suppose the simple answer is it would depend on where you place your own moral goalposts, which is highly subjective and dependent upon your own personal beliefs. " We ned (sic) an Assange cult in Australia right now - and I wish someone would tart one for poor Bradley Manning as well." Joseph Davis. Quite frankly, I'm getting sick of "cults", whoever they are about. They take the frail individual, with all his/her faults and turn them into a "hero". So many of our heroes then fall. Julian Assange and Bradley Manning are both flawed human beings. Manning is in a much more parlous position than Assange.
Edward F | 15 March 2013

Dear Edward, we all worship different gods - and they are all seem to be very frail individuals with faults. My father was fond of Stalin and Mao - neither of whom seem to have been particularly nice guys. Even Pol Pot's staggering "Year Zero" concept seems to have had its adherents. Both Julian and Bradley, however, were a bit frailer than those two homicidal maniacs and clearly now need our support if they are not to rot in detention forever - or worse. If it takes a "cult" (which I assume Tim Kroenert was using metaphorically rather than literally) to get them out of detention then I am all for worshiping at the shrine. Why, I've even been rather impressed by Pope Francis's recent support of Jimmy Buffett's view that "God Don't Own A Car". Indeed, it would seem that a cult of humility may be fast forming around that interesting individual - whom I suspect may have one or two faults and frailties despite his indubitable infallibility.
Joseph Davis | 15 March 2013

Assange is Australian. He has managed to show up the nasty underbelly of some powerful governments. Good on him! We should be doing our best to bring him safely home and defend him from the Americans who would like to put him on death row. God bless him and keep him safe and let him be free to travel home again soon.
Bernadette | 15 March 2013

Yes, I see your point, Joseph. Thank you. My own late father was committed to God; King (and later Queen); Britain; Empire etc. Not surprising given our family history. Like the Left Paradise (Postponed) of your father something now amongst the road kill of History. I feel terribly sorry for Bradley Manning, who is, I think, a very confused young man (I'm talking sexuality and life); a dual US/British citizen (Britain have done nothing for him) and the person who really provided the big scoops for Wikileaks. Julian Assange was the equivalent of a staff officer behind the lines who took the credit. Reading much of the stuff on Wikileaks in regard to the areas I'm really interested in (Asia and the Middle East) I was impressed how sane and insightful US diplomats were. Assange, quite frankly, I think is a bit "up" himself. Like the Anarchists on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil war I think he may be a hindrance rather than a help. I think it important the world does not forget Manning.
Edward F | 15 March 2013

Edward F, you ignore all the incriminating evidence that Wikileaks disclosed. How about this for starters, Shell Oil admitted in emails to have so many people in the Nigerian government that they effectively are the Nigerian government. Recently Nigerian courts decided that Shell don't need to compensate Nigerians for their illnesses (and often deaths) caused by Shell to their environments. How about the Collateral exposure video and the psychopathic glee expressed by the US soldiers who shot down innocent civilians? How about Hilary Clinton spying on everyone in the UN, wanting their bank details, spending habits etc. There is so much in those leaks that is totally ignored by the MSN. Do your own research and don't rely on the press to keep you informed. Free Bradley Manning. Free Assange. True heroes in these days of lies and deception.
James D. Simons | 18 March 2013

as i wish to be governed, not ruled by deceit and vested interests, i support, the very brave, J.Assange. behind the smokescreen of "classified" treasuries are being emptied and lives squandered.
thomas vesely | 19 March 2013

I enjoyed Robert Connolly's film,but it's simply not true to say that Assange or his mother were "one-time members" of a sect, [The Family]. I researched this matter in great detail for my book on WikiLeaks, The Most Dangerous Man in the World, and could find no direct link, and certainly no membership! Andrew Fowler
Andrew Fowler | 19 March 2013


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