With Oliver Stone’s Snowden in theaters (read our review), now seems like a good time to remember some other cinematic entries about other people who chose to blow the whistle on their employers-no matter the cost.
Serpico (1973) Directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Network) and starring Al Pacino in the title role, it tells the true story of how NYPD officer Frank Serpico went undercover to expose corruption in the police force. It covers twelve years; 1960-1972. It was successful commercially and artistically receiving Academy Awards for Best Actor for Pacino and Best Adapted Screenplay. It also routinely comes up on lists of the best crime movies AND best movies of the 20th century period, as well as being considered a high mark to Lumet and Pacino’s careers.
The Insider (1999) Directed by Michael Mann (The Last of the Mohicans, Collateral) and based on Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article, “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” 60 Minutes did a segment on Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe in one of his best performances) a whistleblower in the tobacco industry. His efforts to come forward were championed by CBS producer Lowell Bergman (played by Al Pacino) despite efforts by the Brown & Williamson tobacco company to silence and discredit Wigand. It wasn’t a big hit commercially but highly lauded by critics and was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith directed this documentary following Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, which detailed the military’s secret history in Vietnam. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. It won prizes at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the Boulder International Film Festival, the Sidney Film Festival, as well as snagging a Peabody Award.
The Whistleblower (2010) Directed by Larysa Kondracki (The Walking Dead, Better Call Saul) and starring Rachel Weisz as Kathryn Bolkovac an American police officer recruited by the United Nations to be a peacekeeper for DynCorp International in post-war Bosnia in 1999. Bolkovac discovered a sex trafficking ring that catered to and was facilitated by DynCorp employees while UN peacekeeping forces looked the other way. Bolkovac went public. It was nominated for three Genie Awards and won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at both the Whistler Film Festival and Palm Springs International Film Festival. Warning – because of the subject matter, this one is extremely violent, graphic, and incredibly dark.
War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State (2013) Directed by Robert Greenwald and Brave New Foundation it clocks it at just 66 minutes. War on Whistleblowers highlights several cases where government employees and contractors took cases of fraud and abuse to the media. All of them were penalized for it professionally and personally. It has a fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes with Variety magazine calling it “a sobering picture of a national security state.”
Top photo: Bigstock
Oliver Stone’s films are not just entertainment; they are political statements. His new film, Snowden, focuses on the former CIA employee and government contractor who leaked information about widespread global surveillance by the U.S. government. The film is a sympathetic portrait of a whistleblower. And while many believe that Edward Snowden should face prosecution, others have lauded his actions. In June, 2015, President Obama signed the USA Freedom Act, which sets some limits on what telecommunication data intelligence agencies may collect on U.S. citizens, a law that might not have happened, some say, without Snowden’s disclosures.
Snowden, viewed in the closing moments of the movie, seems to be taking advantage of any positive feelings that may result from Stone’s film. As Barack Obama heads into the final months of his administration, a time when many presidents issue pardons, Snowden is asking for one. In statements made to The Guardian, the British newspaper that first broke the story, Snowden called what he did “vital,” and “moral.” Snowden, who first fled to Hong Kong, has been living in Moscow. While White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has said that Snowden would face charges if he returned, former Attorney General Eric Holder in May said that Snowden had performed a “public service” by sparking a debate about surveillance. Stone’s film seems perfectly timed to continue that conversation.
While Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been acting since he was a child and has appeared in dozens of films and TV shows, he will be a new discovery to many theater goers who will turn out to see him as Snowden. That low profile allows him to disappear into the role. He bears a physical resemblance to the title character, but it’s his performance that serves as the core of the film. He allows us to see his transformation, from an ardent patriot who believes the U.S. is the greatest country in the world (he’s asked that question in numerous polygraph tests along the way), to a disillusioned patriot who believes that post-9/11 the country has gone too far, sweeping up “metadata” on its citizens. At one point, he resigns from the CIA, so concerned about what he sees happening. But before too long, he’s back in and what he learns the second time around leads him to take action.
Snowden was a high school drop out who never graduated from college. (He earned a GED and took classes at a community college.) After 9/11, he enlisted in the Army, hoping to become Special Forces. A broken leg revealed more serious health problems and he was discharged. Looking for another way to serve his country, he applied to the CIA. When agency heavyweight Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) asks Snowden why he wants to join the CIA, he responds that it would be cool to have such a high security clearance. O’Brian is nonplussed by the answer, but he recognizes Snowden’s talents and hires him. The two become close but their relationship will be tested again and again.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley
Shailene Woodley plays Snowden’s long-suffering girlfriend Lindsay Mills. Although they meet on a site called Geek-Mate, Lindsay is a photographer, not a techie. She’s also liberal, while Snowden still defends the Bush Administration. His security clearance prevents him from sharing anything about his work with Lindsay. As he becomes aware of just how far surveillance has gone, his moves to protect their privacy – covering up the camera on her computer with tape, claiming that their home is being bugged – come across to her as extreme paranoia. Yet she remains loyal and follows him to Tokyo and Hawaii. (In the closing credits we learn that Lindsay has moved to Moscow to be with Snowden.)
Melissa Leo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Wilkinson, and Zachary Quinto
The film toggles back and forth between Poitras’ interview with Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room, and scenes from Snowden’s past while he was climbing the intelligence ladder. Melissa Leo plays Laura Poitras, who directed and produced Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning documentary about Snowden and Zachary Quinto plays Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who interviewed Snowden with Poitras’ camera running. There’s a claustrophobic feel to those hotel scenes, the tension building as the authorities threaten to close in. Once the Guardian story appears (according to the film, the outcome was never assured with Greenwald pushing his London editor, Janine Gibson played by Joely Richardson, to get it done) the hotel is overrun with journalists. Snowden manages to escape, hiding out for days in rundown sections of the city, eventually making it to Moscow.
Stone hasn’t had a high profile film in years. Snowden should put him back on the map.
Snowden opens nationwide September 16, 2016.
Photos Courtesy of Open Road Pictures