The Whistleblower (2011)
September 4, 2011 § Leave a comment
Written by Larysa Kondracki and Eilis Kirwan
Directed by Larysa Kondracki
Starring Rachel Weisz, Monica Bellucci, Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn, Nikolaj Lie Kaas and David Hewlett
The Whistleblower is exactly what it sounds like- an altruistic and honest person observes horrifically corrupt practices and risks her life to expose atrocities to the world. It’s a story that needed to be told, the woman’s bravery and humanity is honorable to say the least and downright heroic to say the most.
However, films are as much entertainment as they are history lessons or political messages. As a message film has to find a balance between the lessons it wants to teach us while still managing to make our experience in the theater a magical one. Whether it’s style like Syriana and Traffic had or heart like Hotel Rwanda, other contemporary fact-based films meant to teach us something about the horrors and triumphs of humanity must offer us more than an Ethics lesson and must feel somehow relatable. The Whistleblower fails to find that balance.
The other thing a film must do is rely on a screenplay that is both structured enough to let us know we’re in good story telling hands while being uninhibited enough with its storytelling that we must pay attention to a film because the story isn’t on autopilot. The Whistleblower fails at this as well.
Rachel Weisz plays Kathryn Bolkavac, a Nebraska cop who is in desperate need of some extra cash or a transfer to a Georgia state trooper job so that she can be closer to her daughter, whom her ex husband has primary custody of. Her superior offers her an alternative; UN peacekeeper in Bosnia for 6 months and $100,000 tax free dollars. Six months of suffering through a complicated mess of post-war racial tensions in a country ripped to shreds, then she can move wherever she wants and be with her daughter. It’s a big decision but in the right circumstances, an easy one. Kathryn takes the job and immediately is thrust into what appears to be standard issue police work in Bosnia, making house calls to domestic assault victims while training local police, who only take the jobs for the money and have no real concern for their fellow citizens. Kathryn takes a special interest in keeping herself honest, working as hard as she would stateside. This leads to an immediate promotion to head of Female Affairs, following up on any violence or crime directed specifically at women, sex trafficking in particular.
We follow two of the sex workers initially, beginning in their home country as they get fake passports to travel to Bosnia to work at a ‘hotel’, but the film quickly loses track of them in their efforts to show what an amazing human being Bolkavac is.
Very quickly she runs into rampant corruption as sex slaves are shuttled around a circus of UN and other international peace keeping officials, allowing pimps and traffickers to continue running their businesses in exchange for cash and free sex. Occasionally someone appears willing to help her, but then they pull their punch because the corruption is too rampant to bother fighting.
I understand films take liberties with facts to make stories more harrowing or to simplify a narrative into something that is digestible in two hours, but I simply found it hard to believe that Bolkavac was the only honorable person working over in Bosnia. She’s helped by an independent Internal Affairs investigator played by David Strathairn, who is strong here. Many of his performances feel stilted and wooden, as if his voice has lost the ability to emote, but here he comes across as human and quite engaging as a man as passionate as Bolkavac, but realistic about their chances at doing any real good. Vanessa Redgrave and Monica Bellucci show up as Bolkavac’s bosses, two women who are on Bolkavac’s side, as much as they can be.
The other UN peacekeepers, including UN Officials, are portrayed like grinning evil doers who are only missing their Snidely Whiplash mustaches to twirl at the impressiveness of their fiendish endeavors.
The film tries to present an air of constant threat and peril to ramp up the thrilling nature of the story but ultimately it’s a battle of paperwork and hearsay, with Bolkavac battling bureaucracy more so than pure unadulterated evil.
As Bolkavac, Weisz is decent. She sports a credible if flat American accent and the script tries its hardest to make her One of the Boys when it counts at the beginning of the story to put our guard down, then turn her into an emotion driven woman of tears and grandstanding speeches later on both for Weisz the actress to have her Big Scene and for us to remember that she’s a lone woman amongst men, trying to save women- girls, really- who can’t help themselves.
The other thing the film does well is to remind us when the story takes place, in 1999, showing us slow Dial Up computers, old screen icons, VHS players and those massive plastic boom boxes that were all the rage in 1999. I commend the film for its era-accuracy and the minor touches it makes to hit these points home.
Once again, the goal of the film is commendable and the story needs to be heard, but a narrative film must be as much entertainment as it is enlightening and The Whistleblower fails as entertainment. It’s dour, heavyhanded and stringently story beat-heavy from the moment the film starts right until it ends. The expositional dialogue is glaring in its mechanical nature and the film shows no respect to the villains of the story; they might as well be wearing black hats and drowning puppies while Weisz wears a white hat and sings Kumbayah.
The Whistleblower is a fantastic example of when the formulaic structure of a film can hurt its cause, even with the best intentions and strongest talents guiding the script.