Toronto. When Australian film director Robert Connolly went looking for some truth about WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange, he didn’t turn to government documents or leaked emails of the sort that Assange’s website is famous for making public.
Instead, he focused on Assange’s past as a teenage hacker and young father growing up in suburban Melbourne, Australia, more than a decade before the launch of the website that has made him both famous and notorious.
“The question is, ‘What makes the man, what forms the person?’” Connolly said in an interview with Reuters at a Toronto hotel near where the film, entitled “Underground,” premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival.
It’s an approach that may disappoint those hoping that the first narrative film on Assange would dramatize recent events that have made him one of the world’s most controversial figures.
However, the film, which will premiere on Australia’s Channel 10 next month and then seek theatrical release abroad, has already received a strong review from Variety, which called it “straightforward and effective” and praised newcomer Alex Williams’s lead performance.
Assange burst into the headlines in 2010 with a series of WikiLeaks releases, including video of a US helicopter killing a Reuters photographer and his driver in Baghdad, along with thousands of US military documents and diplomatic cables.
He is currently holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over sexual assault allegations, and what he fears may be a future attempt by US authorities to charge him over the 2010 leaks.
On The Radar
But Assange was already on the radar screen of law enforcement agencies two decades earlier, when under the hacker handle “Mendax” he was part of a Melbourne-based hackers group called the “International Subversives.”
The group hacked into several corporate and government systems, including the US Pentagon, while maintaining a ‘look, but don’t touch’ policy.
“They had a moral code that was not to steal, not to damage, just to look. I think that’s fascinating that these young kids had that at a time when other hackers were stealing stuff and going to jail,” said Connolly.
Ultimately, Assange discovered US military documents showing civilian targets being deliberately bombed during the first Gulf War in 1990-91, sowing the seeds for his later efforts to expose government activities.
At home, Assange’s life was no less chaotic, as he struggled to balance his nocturnal hacking activities with his responsibilities as a teenage father.
Actress Rachel Griffiths stars as his mother, a free-thinking anti-nuclear activist and steadying influence, frustrated by the inability of local police to protect them from Assange’s estranged stepfather, a member of a notorious Aryan cult.
“The hypothesis for me … is what could have galvanized the young Julian Assange in his belief that you can’t stand back and do nothing, because if you do bad things will happen,” said Connolly.
The film paints a picture of a pre-Internet era of clunky dial-up modems and lax corporate security standards that offered easy prey for computer-savvy teens with time on their hands.
“Without a Trace” leading man Anthony LaPaglia appears as the Australian Federal Police detective tracking the young Assange.
Connolly, who has never met Assange, considers the film an unauthorized portrayal, though he noted the two have friends in common and Assange has not voiced any objections to it.
The film relies heavily for its source material on the 1997 book “Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier” by Suelette Dreyfus, as well as records related to Assange’s ultimate guilty plea to 25 hacking-related charges in 1995.
Connolly admits to taking creative license with the scenes involving Assange’s home life, but said he thinks the broader story paints a genuine picture of his formative years.
“Much of the media coverage about Assange is simple, bite-sized analysis of the man, and I think the danger of that is people sum him up with big, broad-brush strokes because of a lack of more knowledge about him,” said Connolly.
“I would hope that part of what the film does is add to a broader discussion about that.”