The 11 Best Movies About Whistle-blowers
Whistle-blowers aren’t Leakers
There is no such thing as a “leaker.” The word is an invented slur used to discredit government whistleblowers.
People who leak information to the press are called leaks, like a leak in a pipe. An organization or agency is said to have a leak when someone is surreptitiously disclosing classified or private information about the organization to the press. People who leak information usually have an agenda and may sometimes leak false information.
Whistle-blowers disclose on-going crimes and/or corruption within a government or an organization. Their motive is to stop the crimes from continuing and bring the perpetrators to justice.
The information that Whistle-blowers disclose is usually in the public interest. Whistle-blowers can be public (like Snowden) or secret (like Deep Throat during the Watergate scandal). Whistle-blowers who go public often face retaliation by those they expose.
Below, my top films about whistle-blowers.
1 Silkwood (1983)
Meryl Streep stars as Karen Silkwood in this true story about an Oklahoma woman who realizes that her employer, Kerr-McGee, is cutting corners with safety and endangering workers. The plant makes plutonium fuel rods for nuclear reactors and shortcuts in safety procedures could get workers exposed to radiation.
Despite her attempts to expose the problem, the status quo remains except now her employer knows what she’s doing and is trying to retaliate. In a last-ditch effort to expose the problem, Silkwood compiles a stack of evidence herself and makes an appointment to meet with reporters with the New York Times. She never makes the meeting.
At the time of her death, Karen Silkwood had 40 times the normal amount of plutonium in her body. Her family (three children) won a $10 million suit against Kerr-McGee which was eventually settled for $3million. Check out a recent interview with her now-grown kids.
2 The Insider (1999)
The true story of what happens when Jeffrey Wigand, a tobacco company scientist, decides to expose his company’s knowledge of the dangers of nicotine and the company’s plans to deliver higher concentrations of nicotine in their cigarettes. Wigand worked for tobacco giant Brown & Williamson. They conducted a merciless smear campaign against him and managed to intimidate CBS News into dropping Wigand’s interview with legendary newsman Mike Wallace on 60 minutes. One of the reasons Wallace hated this film is that he was portrayed (accurately) as caving into CBS brass when they leaned on him and executive producer Don Hewitt to drop the story. Both men had the clout at the time to fight it, but they didn’t. When the interview finally ran it was heavily cut.
Russell Crow is almost unbearably intense as Wigand (your heart will be pounding with paranoia). Al Pacino plays 60 minutes producer Lowell Bergman and Christopher Plummer plays Wallace.
3 Kill the Messenger (2014)
The true story of Gary Webb, a journalist at the San Jose Mercury News, one of the best newspapers in the country. He’s a crime reporter covering the arraignment of a Colombian drug lord. The day before the arraignment the drug lords’ girlfriend meets him at a restaurant to let Webb know that the trafficker will be making a deal. The long and tangled story tells the truth about the CIA selling crack cocaine in black communities to raise money for arms to send to central America. The government smeared Webb and neither his newspaper nor his co-workers stood up to defend him. They should walk in shame for the rest of their days. The CIA later admitted the allegations. Webb was found dead in a motel room with two gunshot wounds to the head. His death was ruled a suicide. Check out a wiki of the whole mess, the CIA’s own statements on the matter, and an archive of Gary Webb’s reporting, interviews, and speeches. Oh, and the Justice Department’s investigation is here.
4 Marie (1985)
Sissy Spacek plays a Tennessee woman who finds out her colleagues are accepting bribes for pardoning criminals and reducing sentences. Stellar cast, and yes, all true.
5 The Whistle-blower (2010)
Rachel Weisz is compelling as Nebraska cop Kathryn Bolkovac. She is offered the chance to join the United Nations Peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina and jumps at the chance. While there she discovers that the company managing the peacekeeping forces are running a human trafficking ring. When she brings the matter to the UN’s attention, they don’t want to hear it. She then gets fired and thrown out of the country, but she has evidence which she risked her life to collect. She takes her story to the BBC. What did the UN do about it. Not much. Unfortunately, this is a true story.
6 Serpico (1973)
The patron saint of whistleblowers everywhere. Frank Serpico was an NYPD cop who discovered rampant corruption in the department and risked his life to expose it. His revelations (graft, bribery, etc.) led to the formation of the Knapp Commission, which investigated Serpico’s allegations. After being shot making a drug arrest and being left to bleed to death by his brothers in blue, Serpico left the department and the country to put the scandal behind him. He returned to the U.S. recently and has settled in upstate New York, where The New York Times caught up with him.
7 Truth (2015)
This is the incident that ended Dan Rather’s illustrious career as one of the most respected journalists in America. A chilling example of what can happen to journalists who exposer an inconvenient truth.
In 2004 60 minutes producer Mary Mapes coordinated a team of reporters researching George W. Bush’s military service. Or lack thereof. He was of age during Vietnam yet never served. He was reportedly in the Texas National Guard at the time, but there is nothing in his file. Digging deeper, they find a source who says he witnessed the removal of documents from W’s National Guard file that recorded the fact that he was assigned to the National Guard as a favor to his family, and that he didn’t show up to serve. He provided documents.
As soon as the story aired, the right-wing media quickly followed by the mainstream media accused Mapes and Rather of forging the documents for political reasons. The question of what Bush did when he was supposed to be in the National Guard was never answered, but the maelstrom of accusations was a nicely orchestrated distraction. Mapes’ book about the scandal is a fascinating read and Rather maintains that the story is true.
8 Snowden (2016)
Who else but Oliver Stone to direct The story of Edward Snowden’s background, his discovery and then disclosure of the United States’ massive surveillance programs. Compelling.
9 Concussion (2015)
Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennett Omalu, the Pittsburgh forensic pathologist who discovered chronic traumatic brain encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease common among football players. It was Dr. Omalu’s work investigating the seemingly inexplicable death of Mike Webster, a former player for the Steelers, that leads to his discovery. Dr. Omalu’s struggle to get the NFL to recognize the problem and take measures to prevent it is infuriating and should disgust anyone with a moral compass.
The International (2009)
This fictional story is based on a real-life scandal from the 1980s. Clive Owen is an Interpol agent, Naomi Watts is a New York District attorney. They team up to investigate the murky dealings of a powerful multinational bank. The bank, of course, fights back. Excellent script.
11 The War on Whistle-blowers (2015)
Despite giving lip service to transparency, The Obama administration pursued and prosecuted whistleblowers more than any administration in recent memory. Obama killed freedom of the press when he went after reporters in a series of raids on the offices of several journalists, seizing their notes, files, phone records and other work materials in an attempt to identify whistleblowers inside the administration. The Justice Department served subpoenas in newsrooms all over Washington, D.C. and New York, using the Espionage Act to get around First Amendment protections. This film profiles several of the whistleblowers caught in the net. The thought of what can happen under a President who is openly hostile to the press and considers them the enemy is frightening.