Cinema, the so-called seventh art, has the ability to generate public interest in a variety of topics and issues. Films can be a powerful tool for educating and informing audiences about social, political, environmental, and cultural issues. Through storytelling, cinema can evoke emotions, inspire critical thinking, and promote empathy and understanding.
This article sorts out a few movies featuring the value of whistleblowers and the critical role they play in exposing corruption, fraud, and other unethical or illegal practices within organizations, governments, and society as a whole — while avoiding major spoiler alerts.
1. The Post
Released in 2017, “The Post” is a historical drama directed by Steven Spielberg and based on the true story of the publication of the Pentagon Papers by The Washington Post in 1971. Daniel Ellsberg, a former Pentagon insider, shook America to its foundations when he smuggled a top-secret Pentagon study to the New York Times that showed how five presidents consistently lied to the American people about the Vietnam War that was killing millions and tearing America apart. The documents eventually reached the Post, which struggled to make the decision to publish the classified government papers revealing the US government’s deception of its people regarding the Vietnam War. Along the way, they face legal and political challenges and must weigh the consequences of their actions. The movie stars Tom Hanks as editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as publisher Katharine Graham, and it was praised for the role of journalism in a democratic society.
2. Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House
Starring Liam Neeson as the leading character, “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House” is a 2017 biographical drama film depicting the true story of Mark Felt, a high-ranking FBI agent who becomes the anonymous informant known as “Deep Throat” during the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. As Felt shares crucial information with journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, an investigation depicted in the movie “All The President’s Men”, he risks his career and safety to expose corruption in the Nixon administration. The movie, directed by Peter Landesman, was acclaimed for its performances and historical accuracy, and for shedding light on the role of whistleblowers in American history.
3. Official Secrets
“Official Secrets” is a 2019 movie based on the true story of Katharine Gun, a British intelligence officer working at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) who leaked a top-secret memo in 2003 revealing that the US was planning to blackmail members of the UN Security Council to support the invasion of Iraq. As Gun faces charges of violating the Official Secrets Act, she must fight to defend her actions and expose the truth behind the Iraq War. The movie stars Keira Knightley as Gun, with supporting performances from Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes, and Rhys Ifans. The biographical drama, directed by Gavin Hood, was praised for its portrayal of the political and legal pressures facing whistleblowers.
4. The Whistleblower
“The Whistleblower” is based on a true story and follows the experiences of Kathryn Bolkovac, a police officer from Nebraska who takes a job as a peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia. While there, she uncovers a network of human trafficking and forced prostitution involving members of the international community, including fellow peacekeepers and local officials. Despite facing opposition and threats to her safety, Bolkovac fights to expose the corruption and bring those responsible to justice. The 2010 movie stars Rachel Weisz and it was directed by Larysa Kondracki.
Directed by Oliver Stone, “Snowden” is a 2016 biographical thriller based on the true story of Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who leaked classified information about the agency’s surveillance programs to the press in 2013. The film follows Snowden as he rises through the ranks of the intelligence community and becomes disillusioned with the government’s invasion of privacy. As he risks his own safety and security to expose the truth about the NSA’s activities, he faces legal and personal challenges. The movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden, with supporting performances from Shailene Woodley, Zachary Quinto, and Rhys Ifans. It was applauded for the exploration of the complex moral and ethical issues surrounding government surveillance and whistleblowing.
6. The Insider
The 1999 movie “The Insider” is based on the true story of Jeffrey Wigand, impersonated by Russel Crowe, a former tobacco industry executive who became a whistleblower and exposed the industry’s knowledge of the harmful effects of cigarettes. The biographical drama directed, by Michael Mann, follows Wigand as he faces personal and professional challenges, including threats to his safety and attempts to discredit his character, while working with investigative journalist Lowell Bergman, played by Al Pacino, to reveal the truth about the tobacco industry. The film was praised for its performances, direction, and exploration of themes including corporate corruption and the role of journalism in holding powerful institutions accountable.
7. The Report
“The Report” can be regarded as an “almost-whistleblower” movie. The 2019 movie is based on the true story of Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones, who was tasked with investigating the use of torture by the CIA in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Jones uncovers shocking evidence of the agency’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on detainees, including waterboarding and other forms of torture. As he faces obstacles and pushback from government officials, Jones becomes determined to release the findings of his report to the public, despite the potential consequences. The political drama, directed by Scott Z. Burns, stars Adam Driver as Jones, and received recognition for its exploration of the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by those involved in government investigations.
8. The Constant Gardner
“The Constant Gardener” is a 2005 drama film based on the novel of the same name by John le Carré and follows British diplomat Justin Quayle, played by Ralph Fiennes, as he investigates the murder of his wife, Tessa, played by Rachel Weisz, who was a political activist investigating corruption in the pharmaceutical industry in Kenya. As Quayle uncovers a vast conspiracy involving the exploitation of impoverished communities for drug testing, he must confront the corruption and power dynamics at play in both the government and the private sector. The movie was acclaimed for its performances, cinematography, and exploration of themes including political corruption, corporate greed, and social justice. While perhaps not directly regarded as a whistleblower film, at the end, it does become one thanks to Tessa’s cousin. The movie was directed by the Brazilian Fernando Meirelles, his first English-language production.
Whistleblowers’ willingness to speak out and report wrongdoing is remarkable and often comes at great personal risk, including potential job loss, legal repercussions, and even physical harm. However, their actions can lead to increased transparency, accountability, and reform, ultimately benefiting the public interest. More than that, whistleblowers can inspire others to come forward and speak out against wrongdoing, creating a culture of accountability and transparency. They can also provide valuable information to journalists, investigators, and law enforcement officials, who may not have otherwise been aware of the issues at hand. For that reason, protecting whistleblowers is critical for promoting accountability, ethics, and transparency. Organizations, governments, and the public should work together to ensure that they are protected from retaliation and that their concerns are taken seriously.