With confidence in government and corporations low and plummeting ever-lower – anyone been phone-hacked lately ? – this should be a great moment for movies about whistleblowers, films giving us confidence that honest individuals can expose the deceit and ineptitude of the goliaths that seem to rule our lives. It’s too bad this season’s whistleblower films have been such let-downs.
Rachel Weisz is great as a U.N. cop-for-hire who discovers a sex trafficking ring in Bosnia, but the disjointed drama The Whistleblower can’t match the explosive, exotic facts it’s based on. (Here's my full review.)
And the doc Chasing Madoff (opening tomorrow) should be especially fraught, now that the stock market has been acting like an amusement park ride. But there’s a serious problem at the center of Jeff Prosserman’s movie about the men who tried – for a whole decade – to get the SEC to play attention to Bernie Madoff’s financial scam. Harry Markopolos, who first complained to the SEC and whose book the film is based on, is too self-aggrandizing. I believe him when he says that anyone callously ruining lives as Madoff did is evil. How he gets from there to “packing” (as he puts it) a gun because his own life is in danger – let’s just say I want more evidence. Besides, the whistleblower shouldn’t be patting himself on the back; that’s our job as viewers.
Luckily, there terrific films out there about uncovering corruption, movies loaded with heroism and suspense even when we know the ending. Here’s a list of five great whistleblower movies, a few recent, a couple classic, all timely.
THE INFORMANT! (2009)
Matt Damon gives a comic spin to this fact-based story of a middle-manager turned FBI informant, exposing a price-fixing scheme at corporate giant ADM. Paunchy and wearing a terrible moustache, which isn’t even a disguise, Damon’s character becomes enamored of supposedly high-tech spy gadgets like voice recorders, bumbling his way to heroism. Steven Soderbergh, who gave us the drama of making corporate criminals pay in Erin Brockovich, directs this underrated film for its sly humor, the next step in whistleblowing.
This trailer gives a terrific sense of its wit.
THE CONSTANT GARDENER (2005)
Weisz’s better whistleblowing movie. In Fernando Meirelles’ adaptation of a John le Carre novel, Weisz’s crusading character moves to Kenya with her diplomat husband – the superb Ralph Fiennes, out of Voldemort mode – and uncovers a plot by a big pharmaceutical company to conduct dangerous tests on children. There is romance, murder, cloak-and-dagger revelations, all the elements that make exposing corruption fun to watch. Danny Huston is also great as a less-than-helpful colleague.
Maybe the best whistleblower movie ever, with Meryl Streep as the real-life Karen Silkwood, who tries to reveal the truth after she is exposed to radiation at the plant where she works. Streep and director Mike Nichols makes the film’s heroine thoroughly human, a woman struggling with relationships, work and family, who tries to do the right thing and might have been run of the road and killed for her trouble. The scene of Silkwood being hosed down after her exposure to radiation is still horrific and chilling.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
What were Woodward and Bernstein looking for when they followed the money if not whistleblowers willing to tell them what that sneaky little Watergate break-in and cover-up were really about? Hal Holbook as Deep Throat, famously meeting Woodward in the depths of a shadowy parking garage, was simply the most dramatic of the informants. Alan Pakula’s film may be history now – typewriters in the newsroom ! – but it’s so brilliantly paced that it never seems tired or old.
ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS ON THE ROOM (2005)
Alex Gibney’s documentary is pretty smart itself, as whistleblowers take center stage in this dynamic analysis of corruption at the highest levels of Enron. If only we had known how common it would become to hear about the toppling and shoring up of corporations. Enron chief Kenneth Lay gave lavish parties while the company was sinking – well, he seems like a prototype now, doesn’t he?
Don’t be discouraged, though. There are still plenty of whistleblowers around – if you can’t find them in life, try Serpico or Michael Clayton.
Research by NATALIE WRIGHT.