The hero of Underground, the new Australian telemovie, is good-looking, courageous, brilliantly clever, with high morals, willing to sacrifice everything — his family, his freedom — as he uncovers a terrible US military plot. In case you think you’ve seen it before, the twist is that it’s based on truth. The film’s subtitle: The Julian Assange Story.
The film has the industry talking, far more than the average telemovie. This is the latest ‘major television event’ that Australia’s TV networks occasionally do very well, and many are gambling that it’s enough of an ‘event’ for audiences to fork out their hard-earned cash. Though it will be shown on Australian television by Ten, it is being marketed elsewhere in the world for theatrical release.
What’s the big deal? Is it any good? Sure it is, but then so were Underbelly (in its best versions), Paper Tigers and Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War, none of which seem to have aspired to anything beyond the humble realm of television. But while Ita Buttrose, Kerry Packer and even many of the Underbelly goons have some national fame, they are not well-known outside Australia. Assange is possibly the most famous Australian at the moment, the only one to make the cover of Time magazine in recent years. (Rupert Murdoch, as a US citizen, no longer counts.) Moreover, in the past two years, almost nobody has shaken up the world news like Assange, provoking reactions that range from hero worship to US official denunciations as ‘enemy of state’ and ‘terrorist’.
Underground‘s potential is bigger than anyone expected. It premiered last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, perhaps the biggest film festival in the world (certainly for the North American market). On day four of the festival, director Robert Connolly was listed by the trade paper the Hollywood Reporter as one of the hottest new directors at Toronto — something which amuses him, as he’s been directing films (The Bank, Balibo) for more than a decade.
‘I didn’t want it to be like a hagiography,’ says Connolly. ‘I wanted to show [Assange] from a compassionate point of view.’ Still, his screenplay (based on Suelette Dreyfus’ book, written before Assange was a household name) suggests that Assange was motivated by heroism more than self-interest. Despite the subtitle, it is set circa 1989, when Assange was a teenager with a genius IQ and a modem, already making history by hacking into the US defence forces — and naturally, wading a little too deep. It’s something that most of us didn’t realise about Assange. For such a fascinating character, his intriguing past is a godsend. This is a prequel, like Young Sherlock Holmes, or the Robert De Niro segments of The Godfather: Part II. The difference, of course, is that Assange is real, and this story wasn’t invented by cynical filmmakers.
It finishes in 1990, so Assange is still shown to posses the idealism of youth, angry as he discovers new miscarriages of justice. More recently, the older Assange has claimed that he still has such ethical motivations, but not everyone is convinced as yet. The Assange of Underground is a flawed hero — headstrong, mischievous, with a youthful arrogance — but a hero nonetheless.
Alex Williams, the 21-year-old actor who plays Assange, is blessed: straight out of the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts, this was his first audition. Not only was he successful, not only was the telemovie elevated to a full theatrical release, but he was flown to Toronto for a few days, before heading to Los Angeles to meet producers. Moreover, he got to play an actor’s dream role: a character he personally admires.
‘I was always a supporter of the work he was doing before I even heard about the role,’ says Williams, ‘because I’ve always believed — and a lot of people in Australia do — that he’s doing the right thing. Our government is doing the wrong thing by not supporting him at all, which is kind of pathetic really.’ It helps that Williams does resemble a younger Assange. ‘I’m happy to look like him,’ laughs the actor, ‘if he’s happy to look like me.’ Williams has Hollywood heartthrob looks, so Assange shouldn’t complain. Neither should the distributors, keen to promote a new movie hero to the masses.
Williams’ admiration for Assange reminds me of another young Perth actor I once interviewed, who was also playing a controversial figure, and also considered that he was playing a true Aussie hero. This was the late Heath Ledger, in the title role of Ned Kelly (2003).
I mention this because the comparison can be taken much further. While Kelly certainly had a following in his lifetime — from those impressed by his almost Assange-like charisma, chutzpah and willingness to stand up to the authorities — it was the movies that turned him into a fully-fledged hero. The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) was almost certainly the world’s first feature film, but its true value might be in starting the bushranger genre, which elevated Ned Kelly to national idol status. Many Kelly films and television series have been released since then, and Kelly has probably become Australia’s favourite hero (away from the sporting field, at least). Indeed, by the 1920s, bushranger films had become so popular that they were banned in some states because, whether portrayed as heroes or villains, the bushrangers were more popular than the law enforcers.
Of course, the jury is still out on Julian Assange. Whatever his misdemeanours, he hasn’t killed or robbed anyone like Ned Kelly did — though one can’t help thinking that he would be honoured (or at least flattered) by the comparison. With Underground, Australian cinema continues its 106-year-old tradition of turning contentious and anti-authority figures into heroes. If Underground inspires audiences, the movies might be a useful tool for Assange in his ongoing attempts to redeem himself. When even your own government won’t stand up for you, the movie industry can be a powerful ally.