In "The Fifth Estate," director Bill Condon's new Hollywood bio of WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange, there's a brief scene in which the present-day Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is asked about a movie based on his life.
"Which one?" replies the prickly cyberactivist, oozing arrogance.
Indeed, another Assange biography — "Underground: The Julian Assange Story" — has been released this month to video-on-demand platforms (including Amazon Instant Video), the timing clearly intended to capitalize on press coverage of "The Fifth Estate," which opened this weekend.
Both movies would seem to benefit from the controversial subject's recent notoriety as a man facing international charges of espionage and sexual assault, not to mention his well-reported distaste for Condon's film.
Still, these aren't dueling biopics. "Underground," with Aussie actor Alex Williams as a teenage Assange, is a year-old made-for-TV movie that complements rather than competes with "The Fifth Estate" — and, not least in psychological terms, surpasses it.
Where the latter pic begins with Assange in his mid-30s, preparing to expose U.S. military secrets about the Iraq war, "Underground" deals exclusively with the born hacker's formative experiences as a fatherless devotee of his mom's anti-establishment ideals — and of the Commodore 64 computer's crude ability to realize those ideals.
As critics have justly argued, "The Fifth Estate" lacks the courage to characterize Assange as either hero or menace, leaving the impression of a movie that doesn't know what to think about its very reason for being. "Underground," on the other hand, types the young Assange as a shrewd survivor, a kid who dared to combine his technological passions with his progressive conscience by way of compensating for the void left by his wayward dad.
Though it doesn't begin to match David Fincher's "The Social Network," "Underground" follows the lead of that film and other online-genius bio-pics by asserting that the computer wiz knew his hardware but couldn't manage to interface with homo sapiens. Williams' Assange is seen living with his baby and girlfriend (Laura Wheelright) but largely ignoring them in favor of pirating pre-Desert Storm intel and playing virtual peekaboo with an investigating officer (Anthony LaPaglia).
This adolescent prankster dimension of Assange's personality is more or less buried in "The Fifth Estate," a studio movie that seems to distrust its subject for failing to turn WikiLeaks into a hot stock property. For those seeking evidence that VOD is the film industry's most stable operating system at present, "Underground" fits the bill.
Also new to VOD
Assange would likely admire the subversive stealth of filmmaker Randy Moore, who snuck cameras into Disney World to make the scathingly satiric "Escape From Tomorrow," now available for rent via iTunes and Vudu.
Shooting in black-and-white, Moore follows Jim White (Roy Abramsohn), a jobless shlub who, strolling the park with his wife (Elena Schuber) and kids (Katelynn Rodriguez, Jack Dalton), leers at teenage girls and drinks like a lush. The Magic Kingdom never looked so unwholesome.
Rob Nelson is a National Society of Film Critics member whose reviews appear regularly in the trade magazine Variety.