Whistleblower films on DVD and Blu-ray
by Tony Dayoub
What is our attraction to movies about whistleblowers? Is it our admiration of one loner speaking truth to power when confronted with an injustice that person may have been a party to? Or is it our own distrust of the establishment, an inborn characteristic in the more rebellious of us, conscious of the way our own place in the world came to be when our forefathers overthrew the armed forces of their mother country? It's arguable whether the humdrum phone hacking scandal — which started with the News of the World and has embroiled everyone from its parent company's CEO, Rupert Murdoch, to talk show host Piers Morgan — registered much with the average American until the mysterious death of 47-year-old Sean Hoare. A former reporter for the British tabloid, Hoare was one of the first to expose the newspaper's questionable methods of acquiring information. Speculation immediately drifted towards some conspiracy angle despite Hoare's notorious abuse of drugs and alcohol.
Perhaps the real point of interest for moviegoers is something simpler. Endemic to almost any film lover is a fascination with a character's evolution over the course of a story. In most genres the evolution unfolds slowly as the story unwinds. What makes the whistleblower movie unique is the explosive epiphany that alters its central character's perception of a world he thought he knew. Nowhere is this best communicated than in the ravings of the mad Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) of Michael Clayton who, in the film's opening monologue, describes his own awakening: "...I'm suddenly consumed with the overwhelming sensation that I'm covered with some sort of film. It's in my hair, my face. It's like a glaze, like a... a coating and, at first I thought, oh my god, I know what this is, this is some sort of amniotic, embryonic, fluid. I'm drenched in afterbirth. I've breached the chrysalis. I've been reborn..." Our complicity in this character's rebirth enlists us to join him in a frustrating, uphill journey to uncover the truth, a recipe for good drama. And until our hero has convinced his associates, a whistleblower film grips us.
Here are a handful of movies, some notable, some gaining respect and, honestly, some from left field that embody the best qualities of this absorbing genre.
On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan, 1954
In this veiled justification for the Kazan's controversial cooperation with the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he informed on his former Group Theater associates, Marlon Brando plays ex-boxer Terry Malloy. Terry is a hired thug who unknowingly lures an informer to his death for his union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). With the informant's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and a tough priest (Karl Malden) on one side egging him on, and on the other his older brother Charley (Rod Steiger) — a button man for Friendly — discouraging him, Terry spends virtually the entire film deciding whether or not to testify against Friendly. Terry's moment of inspiration comes in a dramatic taxi cab exchange between Brando and Steiger, the "I coulda been a contender..." scene analyzed in many an acting class. Charley has his own moment of clarity when Terry slowly pushes away his brother's gun, causing Charley to realize how low his association with Friendly has brought his brother. Not known for his subtlety, Steiger almost imperceptibly breaks up for a moment as Charley realizes his conversion to Terry's point of view means his own imminent death.
All the President's Men, Alan J. Pakula, 1976
Robert Redford shepherded this Watergate project to the screen just as the events were unfolding on the evening news. He plays Bob Woodward to Dustin Hoffman's Carl Bernstein (dubbed "Woodstein" by Jason Robards' Ben Bradlee), two unremarkable reporters who uncover a trail of corruption leading to Nixon's White House after a botched break-in to the Democratic National Committee headquarters. As photographed by the incomparable Gordon Willis, the brightly lit Washington Post newsroom is the only refuge from the rest of Washington D.C.'s encroaching darkness. Woodward's clandestine encounters in a deserted parking garage with the then-unidentified informant, Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), are claustrophobically framed, the shadows so pervasive and palpable they almost squeeze the color out of the shot. Woodstein's professional closeness in uncovering the truth is so matter-of-fact, and our identification with their mission is so great, that the two reporters' personal differences come to as much of a surprise to us as they do to Bernstein, who nearly does a spit-take when Woodward reveals to one GOP source that he's a Republican.
The New Canon
The Firm, Sydney Pollack, 1993
This masterful thriller is based on John Grisham's novel, in which Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise), top of his law class at Harvard, is recruited by a secretive Memphis firm (Bendini, Lambert and Locke) whose most important client turns out to be a Chicago-based organized crime syndicate. Approached by the FBI for help in indicting the firm, McDeere and his wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn) navigate through treacherous waters that include attorney-client privilege, marital fidelity, familial obligation to his convicted brother, Ray (David Strathairn) and loyalty to a mentor (a devilish Gene Hackman). Watch Cruise's sweaty countenance as the firm's internal security chief (Wilford Brimley) slowly approaches him just as he takes a phone call in which his FBI handler (Ed Harris) tells him to run for his life. The film's inspired resolution to McDeere's dilemma — he discovers a surprisingly pedestrian illegality in the firm's accounting books — is an improvement over Grisham's contrived, winner-take-all conclusion, which allows McDeere to literally sail off into the sunset with no real repercussions. Hal Holbrook (who gave the altruistic Deep Throat a sinister cast in All the President's Men) plays the seemingly benevolent senior partner, Oliver Lambert.
The Insider, Michael Mann, 1999
Who says a tipster has to be even remotely likeable? Russell Crowe's portrayal of Jeffrey Wigand, a fired tobacco employee with an obvious axe to grind, invites one to dislike the character. Uptight, paranoid and more than a little self-interested, Wigand's motives for bringing down Big Tobacco are as much a retaliation for his dismissal as they are a desire to inform the public of Big Tobacco's awareness of the addictiveness of their products. Al Pacino plays 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, the man who brings Wigand's accusation to television. Christopher Plummer's performance as caustic anchor Mike Wallace is an example of carefully applied caricature distilling a real-life figure's personality on film. Influenced by Willis’ tight framing and deep focus photography in All the President's Men, cinematographer Dante Spinotti takes it one step further, suffusing the shot with cool colors reflecting the almost clinical precision of Wigand's paranoia and professorial demeanor.
Michael Clayton, Tony Gilroy, 2007
The film's somewhat disorienting and disjointed chronology reflects the state of mind of its title character (George Clooney), a "fixer" who cleans up his law firm's messes. In this case, Clayton must deal with the apparent mental breakdown of one of the partners, Tom Wilkinson's Arthur Edens, six years into a complex, billion-dollar litigation involving a cancer-causing weed killer in which he represents the defendant, agricultural company U-North. Edens is so disgusted with his own complicity in covering up his client's crime, he strips down nude during a deposition. Shortly thereafter he decides to expose U-North's self-incriminating studies. Tilda Swinton won an Oscar for playing U-North's counsel, whose growing desperation leads her to hire her own kind of fixers to eliminate Edens and eventually Clayton. Gilroy's decision to name the film after a character that would usually play second banana to the film's soothsayer, Edens, is an apt one. Every aspect of Clayton's life — his gambling addiction, his relationships with one brother who's a drug addict and another who's a cop, his growing sense of responsibility towards his pubescent son — is examined as a contributing factor in motivating him to finally betray his law firm in order to support Edens in his quixotic undertaking.
It's a Stretch, but…
Seconds, John Frankenheimer, 1966
Seconds brings up the interesting concept of a person being reborn before the revelatory epiphany that alters their outlook. Here, it's regular working schlub Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) who is given what some may consider the chance of a lifetime by the mysterious Company. For a sizable fee, he can remake his life, career, and even his appearance to more closely match his unachieved dreams. Emerging from this transformation as the handsome, young artist Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson), he is delighted at the chance to live his new, ideal life with a gorgeous new girlfriend (Salome Jens) and a cool Malibu beach pad. But the thinness of the façade starts to wear on Wilson, and he starts longing for his old life with his "widow." The fact that the very masculine "Rock Hudson" was actually an invented actor persona for the closeted Roy Scherer surely informed Hudson's surprisingly emotional performance: He's simply never been better than in this little-seen movie. Crisply shot in an, at times, hallucinatory manner by the legendary James Wong Howe, Seconds' mounting paranoia gets under your skin. The film's final horrific moment, when Wilson must face the music for blowing the cover off the sinister Company, is a testament to the fact that Hudson had some hidden depths rarely explored by Hollywood movies.
Logan's Run, Michael Anderson, 1976
In this science fiction chase thriller, Michael York plays Logan 5, a type of cop known as a Sandman because he must euthanize Runners, fugitives trying to escape their required societal obligation of Last Day. In Logan's ecologically balanced domed city, overpopulation is controlled by requiring everyone to expire when the jeweled Lifeclock on their hand turns red on their 30th birthday. Logan believes anyone can try their hand at avoiding Last Day by competing in a ritual known as Carousel. But even fellow Sandman Francis 7 (Richard Jordan) can't recall ever seeing someone survive the ritual. One day, well before his Last Day, Logan is assigned to infiltrate the Runners in order to find their refuge, Sanctuary. His Lifeclock turns red in order to keep up the pretense, and he soon finds himself at odds with Francis as he enlists a lovely sympathizer, Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter), in his quest for Sanctuary. Admittedly, the film's futurism looks dated now. But all quirky nicknames aside, York is endearing as a man who shifts from running because of a police assignment to one whose life depends on his flight. The discoveries Logan and Jessica make along their getaway route transform Logan from one of "them" to one of "us," bringing down the sterile society that he is a product of in the process. Look for iconic TV star, and then-monikered, Farrah Fawcett-Majors in a rare film role as a miniskirted surgical assistant.
This review was first published on 8/3/2011 in Nomad Editions: Wide Screen.