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The Playlist Informs On You: 16 Notable Whistleblower Movies

Features
by The Playlist Staff
August 5, 2011 6:03 AM
7 Comments
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"On The Waterfront" (1954)
Long in the offing, Elia Kazan's film was based on a 24-part series of articles in the New York Sun by Malcolm Johnson called 'Crime on the Waterfront' which told of the corruption, extortion and racketeering in the Manhattan and Brooklyn dockyards. Originally written by Arthur Miller (at Kazan's request) and called "The Hook", Kazan and Miller were pressured to change the villains from corrupted union officials to communists -- Miller refused and "The Hook" was never made. In the meantime, Kazan confessed to his communist ties and named names to House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in exchange for his right to continue to work (a fact which makes him a controversial figure to this day). Budd Schulberg (who also wrote "The Harder They Fall," -- see below -- and was another 'friendly witness') replaced Miller, added the Commies, and won one of the film's eight Oscars for his trouble. Filmed over 26 days on location in Hoboken, New Jersey, the production encompassed the docks, the worker's slum houses, local bars and rooftops, and several real-life boxers feature in the cast: all adding to the realism and believability of the finished film. Marlon Brando, in one of his seminal early roles, plays Terry Malloy, whose brother works for the mob-connected union boss Johnny Friendly. Not the brightest spark, Terry does what he's told, including luring a witness into an ambush that ends in murder. Terry's conscience starts to get to him and old grudges are aired, leading Terry to utter the film's most famous line to shame his brother for getting him to throw a fight in his early days as a boxer -- "I coulda been a contender." After his brother ends up dead, Terry is talked out of violent revenge and instead testifies against Friendly and wins back the union and the docks for the workers. Thought to be Kazan and Schulberg's explanation for being friendly witnesses themselves for HUAC, it was one of the first films that portrayed a heroic informer, but despite the tremendous performances, the repeated emphasis on the waterfront's moral code of "D and D" ("Deaf and Dumb") and the cost of remaining silent, are about as subtle as a rock to the head. [B]

"Prince of the City" (1981)
Even though it clocks in at 2 hours and 40 minutes, Sidney Lumet’s “Prince of the City” still feels, on a scene-by-scene basis, like an admirably spare and economical work from one of America’s greatest directors. A crime drama with serious intent and one that mostly thrums along with an ominous dead heat, it’s also prone to throwing up pockets of abject physical and emotional violence. To some extent, the film is the mature twin of the director’s earlier “Serpico,” this time with Daniel Ciello (Treat Williams) a bent NYPD officer who reluctantly decides to come clean and grope for moral absolution, exposing his colleagues' collusion with the New York criminal underworld. In scope alone, it’s an astounding accomplishment. Scripted by Jay Presson Allen from the nonfiction book of the same name written by former Deputy Commissioner of the NYPD Richard Daley, its themes resonate beyond the superficialities of what could otherwise be pat, familiar material, as it becomes clearer Ciello is just one sprocket in an ugly, hypocritical machine, and he and his partner’s sanity begins to fray around the edges. Things perhaps wander off course in the back half, and Williams’ performance falters with it, rendering the eventual conclusion a little flat, framed as it is around a rather staid courtroom drama that lacks the tenacity of Lumet’s next film “The Verdict.” More to the point, with a cast of seemingly hundreds of minor characters, anyone not keeping up with the film’s forensic and slavish attention to detail will quickly get lost in its dense moralistic and narrative chicanery. Though an exposé of this breadth and complexity has since found its natural latter-day home in David Simon’s work with HBO, both on “The Wire” and providing the novelistic source for “Homicide: Life on the Street,” it’s still slightly depressing that cinema has not dared to venture into these waters since, especially as it remains one of Lumet’s most difficult and essential works. A directorial giant we lost earlier in the year, his legacy seems more vital now than ever. [A-]

"Serpico" (1973)
Frank Serpico, whose story was the basis for the movie "Serpico" directed by the late Sidney Lumet, was the first New York City police officer to report on the widespread corruption in the NYPD. Amid shots of New York, from the towering Brooklyn Bridge to the dirty, grimy dirty streets that pay homage to the film noirs of the past, the story unfolds as Serpico goes undercover to expose the corruption of his fellow officers, learning first-hand the consequences of whistleblowing. First harassed, then threatened, and eventually shot in the face, he was real-life proof that one man's crusading informer is another man's traitor. The Serpico of the film is an idealistic straight-laced cop and an unconventional guy who is constantly exposed to corruption and illicit dealings within the force by a bunch of bad guys with badges. They want him to be one of them, but instead he retreats into himself, at first hopeful of simply keeping himself clean of the mess by being a good cop and refusing any involvement with the ringleaders. But the stress of constantly trying to identify the shades of grey between good and evil takes its toll on him, and he eventually appears to testify before the NAPA Commission about payoffs and corruption. The film sticks to the facts of Serpico's life, with the ex-cop even supervising on set, before being sent away by Lumet, who was concerned he was making the actors self-conscious. It didn't seem to adversely affect Pacino's performance, however: it is one of his very best, winning him a Golden Globe, and an Oscar nomination, and now serves as a summary reminder of the amazing talents currently being put to use in Adam-Sandler-In-Drag movies. [A]

"Silkwood" (1983)
As explained in the outstanding joint commentary from filmmakers Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh on Nichols' "Catch-22," politically charged melodrama "Silkwood" was the first movie in which Nichols experimented with a whole bunch of cuts, breaking away from the long, fluid camerawork and minimal cutting that had defined his work until then (including "Catch-22"). What this editorial style adds to "Silkwood" is a sense of urgency – of the walls closing in around Karen Silkwood as she labors (both with the government and then later independently) to expose the potentially harmful wrongdoing in the plutonium plant where she works. As a whistleblower movie, it's aces – Streep is outstandingly ego-less in the lead performance (it earned her an Oscar nomination) -- and it really fires up when it delicately balances the more maudlin, emotional familial elements (Kurt Russell is terrific as Streep's strained husband) with the hard-hitting issues of the time (in 1983 nuclear power was about as hot-button as it got). It should be noted, though, that despite its timeliness, it doesn't feel particularly dated today (although can you believe they gave away the ending on the original theatrical poster? What were they thinking?). The script, based on a true story and co-written by Nora Ephron, is its most effective when it emphasizes that the personal truly is political and that some things really are worth fighting (and potentially dying) for. Also: it's probably the only movie on our list to inspire a popular phrase: the "Silkwood Shower," named after the decontamination procedure in the movie, is often referred to when someone has a less-than-clean hook-up and needs to rinse themselves clean of the dirtiness (both literal and spiritual). We've all been there... [B+]

"The Harder They Fall" (1956)
The movie adaption of the novel of the same name by Budd Schulberg, "The Harder they Fall" is a riff on the career of Primo Carnera, who, though freakishly large, apparently wasn’t that great a boxer, with rumors circulating that his career was forged out of fixed fights. "The Harder They Fall" is probably more known for being Humphrey Bogart’s last film before his death in 1957 than anything else, and yes, the role is pure Bogart: that of a cynical loner following his own set of rules of what's right and wrong. Instead of his go-tp character of PI, in this film noir he plays sports reporter Eddie Willis, a character based on the boxing writer and event promoter Harold Conrad. Forced between a rock and a hard place financially after the newspaper he was writing for goes under, he’s forced to publicize a new giant Argentinian boxer Toro Moreno, for crooked promoter Nick Benko. After developing a bond with the slow-witted and untalented boxer, he sends him home with Benko’s dough, won betting against Toro in a fight in which he was brutally knocked out. In the end Willis confronts Benko and starts writing to expose him and widespread corruption of the boxing world. "The Harder They Fall" is an under-apppreciated behind-the-scenes boxing drama, and its worth extends beyond that of its leading man. [B+]

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7 Comments

  • goldfarb | August 6, 2011 6:31 AMReply

    nice list - I watched All the President's Men again last weekend...it's really amazing just how great that film is.
    interesting that China Syndrome was basically Wilford Brimley's first film credit...

    The Constant Gardener is so underrated...Weisz is amazing as always and I don't think that Fiennes is " unusually sympathetic", unless you mean that he's usually the heavy...the film pretty much cemented my feeling that Fiennes is the best actor working today...

  • jimmiescoffee | August 5, 2011 11:47 AMReply

    if anything is fair in the movie universe 'zodiac' will go down to be one of the greats.

  • Christopher Bell | August 5, 2011 10:10 AMReply

    "The Informant" didn't clean up at the box office? My screening had plenty of walk-outs, but last I checked it maid 30 mil on a 10 ml budget.

  • jimmiescoffee | August 5, 2011 8:18 AMReply

    ton of good modern movies here. 'constant gardener' & michael clayton' ...soderbergh is awesome. 'insider' is underrated for sure. and i completely forgot about how much i enjoyed kirsten dunst in dick.'

  • Chris | August 5, 2011 6:40 AMReply

    Erin Brockovich is better than On the Waterfront? Are you fucking kidding?

  • rotch | August 5, 2011 6:39 AMReply

    This wil sound really weird but... I like Dick. You're underrating Dick and should try Dick again. Dick is kind of great, and Dunst and Williams are really cool in it.

  • Blepyrus | August 5, 2011 6:18 AMReply

    Great List....

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