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Monday, 1 April 2013

Movie review: Underground: The Julian Assange Story, dir Robert Connolly (2012)

Alex Williams as Julian Assange in the movie.
Yesterday there was a tweet containing a link to a web page with material about the launch in Sydney's Paddington of the Julian Assange movie Underground. The event featured director Robert Connolly, US movie critic Eddie Cockrell, Julian's mother Christine Assange, actor Alex Williams, and Cassie Findlay of the WikiLeaks Party national council, and there are some enthusiastic videos where some of these people get to talk (Williams looked decidedly reluctant to do so when confronted by the woman with the camera, probably because you'd want to keep the politics out of what is after all the first big bash following your acting debut, although Williams did go on to say he supports WikiLeaks). A bit later Christine Assange tweeted news of the first Australian screening of the movie on a commercial TV channel - and "commercial" turned out to be on the money; there were ads every few minutes, with program managers eager to squeeze as many dollars as possible out of this sure-to-be-popular show.

While the ads were deeply irritating the movie turned out to be very good qua movie. Rachel Griffiths as Christine Assange and Anthony LaPaglia as Ken Roberts, the Federal Police detective charged with bringing the hackers to justice, were very good indeed. Griffiths especially, to me, seemed to have "got" Christine Assange's way of speaking and her view of the world. LaPaglia leads a quickly-assembled team on a hunt without precedent in Australia at the time, in 1989, and there is solid drama in the police work. Benedict Samuel as the tech guy on the team, Jonah, is credible too. On the side of Assange, Laura Wheelright plays the beautiful Electra, although it seems that her main role is to get pregnant and then lose patience with the young Julian's irrepressible urge to connect in the online world, an urge that doesn't abate after their child is born.

In the beginning of the movie the chase scenes, where Christine seeks to flee her strange partner and his cult, The Family, are well done. This element of the story becomes meaningful later when Julian's little brother is almost abducted and Julian and Christine confront a Victoria policeman about the police's lack of action in stopping the cult from operating. The scene makes the police look ploddish, and so that impression can easily be contrasted with Roberts' relentless hunt for Julian and his hacker mates, who after all only sought access to computer networks and never stole or damaged anything. Julian's unwillingness to take the advice of Prime Suspect (Callan McAuliffe) and insert a worm into the military network Julian had hacked conforms with Suelette Dreyfus' book, Underground, on which the movie is largely based. From the point of view of the hackers the police response is out of proportion to the crime, while the police had ignored Christine's complaints year after year about the abuse of children by the cult she and her two boys had had to repeatedly escape by relocating from home to home across the country.

But in other respects the movie departs from the script as set out in the book. Julian's meeting with the journalist - a sloppy, careworn specimen well played by Simon Maiden - that is so important in the movie, and of course in real life, does not appear in the book. The idea that Assange at this early stage, in 1989, sought to publicise the material that he found online is correct by the logic of 2013, or even 2009, but its appearance in the movie is a piece of teleological wishful thinking. Likewise for Julian's dramatic, pathos-laden plea when Roberts finally comes into his room and puts the cuffs on him, that he "just needs more time". It becomes a kind of mantra. I even heard someone in the movie accusing Julian of wanting to become a journalist, but I don't remember now who said it. In Dreyfus' book at no point is there any kind of expression on the part of Assange of a wish to publish information found online during the hacking sessions. The scriptwriter and the director are rewriting history here.

And this is an important point because just before the credits the movie tells us that what Julian had been doing with classified US military information in 1989 - in the lead-up to the first Gulf War - was strikingly similar to what he would go on to launch later, in 2009 - "twenty years later" - with WikiLeaks. We are led to believe that the only reason he did not do so earlier was because of the custody battle and Julian working as a single father, raising his child. The way the movie went about this piece of magic surprised me and contradicted my understanding of the book, which I read some time ago, admittedly. But I did read it from cover to cover.

Supporters of WikiLeaks, like me, will find a lot to applaud in this fresh-looking movie. I found it mostly credible and certainly interesting. Because I grew up in a big city and went to university at a young age I can identify with the squat dramatics. And because I had in my family someone who was deeply involved in computers from a young age I can grok the hackers. What many WikiLeaks supporters will hope, however, is for the movie to function as a kind of press release and in that guise it will surely be successful because it is well-made and vibrant. It's just a shame that the creators have over-egged the "journalist" thing with a few strategic misrepresentations. Correct me if I'm wrong, there's a comments facility on this blog.

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