Elizabeth (Laura Wheelwright) & Julian (Alex Williams)

A teenager taps away on a Commodore 64 and, a few moments later, up on his monitor pops the welcome screen to MILNET – the US Army’s computer network. Long before the internet, even longer before Wikileaks, Julian Assange was a teenage hacker. But he wasn’t in the destruction or self-promotion business… it was an escape to a world where he could exhibit complete control, in contrast to the physical world he lives in. But what he finds has the capacity to blow wide open a secret US military operation – and it will be his downfall.

Underground – The Julian Assange Story delivers Assange’s life in the 80’s – one built looking over his shoulder, always prepared to flee from the creepy father of his young step-brother who has connections to one-time cult The Family. His mother Christine (an impeccable and determined performance from Rachel Griffiths) is as liberal as they come and continues to encourage her eldest son to broaden his mind and think outside the precepts of the morals and rules that confine society.

“Respect existence or expect resistance”

His obvious talent with computers and code connects him with like-minded scofflaws Trax (Jordan Raskopoulos) & Prime Suspect (Callan McAuliffe). They form a tight group and find their way into all sorts of electronic mischief though it doesn’t take long before they appear on the radar of the CIA and, by default, the Victorian Police. Detective Sargent Ken Roberts (a suitably bewildered Anthony LaPaglia – “What the hell’s a bulletin board?!”) is set the onerous job of tracking the hackers down and sets up Operation Weather – a task force designed to fight cyber-crime before anyone knew what it was.

The cat and mouse chase that ensues between Roberts and Assange is laboured in parts but on the whole moves swiftly throughout the 90 minutes. Alex Williams is mesmerising as the young Assange and plays well off Laura Wheelwright (Elektra), showing great compassion and sensitivity and portrays the protagonist as a determined introvert searching for what he believes is the truth. Their relationship is typically teen though Wheelwright’s role diminishes through the second act.

Griffiths is a highlight as the protective Christine Assange (“I am not going to betray my son today, Sargent, not to you or them.”), and Raskopoulos is entertaining as the over-eager Trax. Geeks of the 80’s will revel in the technology found at the Fitzroy Computer Market and used by the hackers throughout the telemovie – the nostalgia kick is hard, sizeable, and adds weight to the storyline.

The most revealing insight from the telemovie is both the depth of access Assange and his mates achieved to various computer networks and the lightness of the sentence once caught. Ahh, simpler times… Assange’s 1991 arrest for 31 counts of hacking offered him a $2,100 fine and a good behaviour bond – it would have meant jail time were it not for the nomadic life he’d experienced with his Mum. Then, in 2006, he started Wikileaks.

“Secrecy laws are there to protect governments.”

Underground – The Julian Assange Story is deceptively intelligent drama, with a cast worthy of the challenging characters they’re placed in. A win for fans of quality Australian drama on all counts. Williams will be one to watch after a strong and layered first professional performance.

Underground – The Julian Assange Story – Sun 8:30pm, Ch10.