“The Whistleblower” (2010): art or medicine?
17 September 2011
Didion: Hollywood has some oddities, and the biopic/advocacy picture is one of them: those films based on true-life accounts of ordinary individuals who encounter, and decide to address, some kind of horror. Think of Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000), in which the titular character comes to realize that a Pacific Gas & Electric station had knowingly poisoned the water near one of its stations in a lonely community out in the southeast California desert. Or Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda (2004), in which a generally nonpolitical hotelier seeks to save his fellow citizens from the exploding Hutu/Tutsi civil war, a genocide ignored by most of the world.
The biopic/advocacy picture is often the kind of film that doesn’t forge a lot of new ground cinematically or narratively, yet still seems nicely positioned for awards and prizes because of its role in educating the public about serious matters and offering us a real-life hero.
Larysa Kondracki’s The Whistleblower (2010) faces these same challenges and opportunities. Set in the aftermath of the mid-90s Bosnian War, where the American ex-police Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) has gone to work temporarily with the UN peacekeeping mission, the film traces her gradual transformation from a contract employee to a serious adversary on the subject of violence against women and sex trafficking. Like so many heroes of biopic/advocacy films, Bolkovac is no freedom fighter — she’s taken the (highly lucrative) job because it allows her to earn the money that will allow her to move to Texas, where her ex-husband has moved with their daughter. Yet when she comes across a savagely beaten wife being dismissed by a group of Serbian police working alongside the UN peacekeepers, she becomes infuriated and fights to get the husband convicted. Even still, she sees this as simple good police work, not a crusading mission…until she begins to realize the extent of rampant sex trafficking and sex slavery in the region, likewise being ignored by local authorities, the UN, and a Halliburton-like company (called Democra in the film). Warning: Spoilers ahoy in this conversation!
First-time director Kondracki has written, “When you put together the words Bosnia, peacekeepers and sex-trafficking, people assume it’s going to be either ‘educational’ or ‘important’, in other words: medicinal.” Has she succeeded in moving beyond a “medicinal” film?
I don’t know about you, JMM, but talking about this film requires something more substantial than a beer. I’m drinking my new favorite, a Sidecar (cognac, triple sec, lemon juice), reportedly the only Prohibition-era cocktail that’s still drinkable. And it has the added benefit of the lemon juice, which both evokes summertime and helps me avoid scurvy.
JustMeMike: Can you buy the Sidecar drink pre-mixed, you know, like in the supermarket for a stay-at-home treat? Anyway after seeing the matinee today, I feel like I need to drink a Boxcar — that’s a four pack of Sidecars. The Burns Court Cinema had what could be called a sparse crowd today for their opening screening of this film which was at 2:15 PM — maybe a dozen and half people. When the film ended, the “crowd”, that’s stretching the truth, was silent as we filed out. It felt like we had all been beaten up. I know what I was thinking — am I a member of the same gender as those sex traffickers? So I am setting the table to say that the film was a lot to take in, and it made me angry.
Didion: Yeah, the only downside of the Sidecar is that the lemon juice thins out the alcohol required to recover from the unmitigated horrors of sexual violence depicted here.
I have mixed feelings: on the one hand, I think it’s good that people might leave the theater angry about what they’ve seen. It’s particularly frustrating here, as the UN and the Halliburton-like Democra seem jointly concerned that the scandal not affect their reputations. On the other hand, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do with that anger. Does the movie tell us?
JustMeMike: Well my anger actually bounces back and forth from grand to a much a smaller scale. So I’ll table your comment about the private contractors for the moment. I’m upset that Kondracki has painted such a bleak picture about the sex-trafficking and then hasn’t built a very good film around it. Seems to me that Bolkovac should have been in greater danger as a direct threat to the status quo. But a few muttered threats on the phone aren’t exactly scary. That was all we got. I never felt that Bolkovac was in peril. The direct result of that is that our anxiety for her is lowered.
Didion: So long as we’re staying on the big-picture level, I’ll confess that there were elements I just didn’t believe — which is too bad given that Kondracki has spoken about the extensive research she did on the subject and Bolkovac’s tale in particular. Here’s what I had trouble with: I totally believed that sex trafficking might be so pervasive, and I believed it might be rife with violence toward women. But I had a harder time believing that once Bolkovac started to uncover the complicity of UN officials and Democra employees, those individuals didn’t back off and close down their activities in Sarajevo.
The film tells us that above all, these men are brutal, evil misogynists so utterly depraved that they’re willing to risk their whole enterprise — they’re so eager to keep savaging their sex slaves that they put their lucrative operation in danger, even going so far as to recruit a major UN official to risk his career facing off with Bolkovac. I feel as if I ought to be her ideal viewer (that is, I fully believe such misogyny exists), but instead she lost me with such exaggerated bad guys.JustMeMike: Good point. Seems a bit off, doesn’t it? The whistleblower is doing her thing, tooting her whistle, and they say, never mind, ignore this person — business as usual.
While we are making hay with the negatives, I have another. So Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave just continues to impress me) introduces Bolkovac to Peter Ward (David Straithairn). Rees tell her (and us) that Peter Ward is a good guy — you can trust him. Then Kondracki gives us a big plot twist. Don’t know about you, but I saw that one coming as well as the second twist. Seemed like she might have done better by bringing us in beforehand during the plotting. Anyway, I wasn’t fooled.
Didion: This returns to your earlier point: the film uses some of the oldest tricks in the thriller book, yet leaves gaps in logic — why didn’t we ever feel that Bolkovac was in danger for her life from these guys?
I’ve been thinking back to Hotel Rwanda and how educational it was for me — it made me realize that even if ethnic violence is so complex that outsiders cannot perceive good guys and bad guys, international intervention is necessary to stop massive genocide. As hard as that film was to watch, its message was crystal clear. The Whistleblower certainly raised my feminist hackles and showed me that the UN was so concerned with reestablishing a certain level of normalcy that it purposefully looks away from the issue of violence against women. That’s quite believable, and quite disturbing. But what more are we supposed to learn from this film?
JustMeMike: So who says The Whistleblower is meant to educate — if you mean call attention to the issue of sex-trafficking or violence against women, then certainly, but if you mean the UN looking the other way — then I’m not so sure. Of course it’s disturbing — but even the UN is administered by officials who are in charge of the local situations. So even if the local officials in Bosnia were either playing ostrich or were part of the profit taking — can we safely say that the entity known as the UN is directly responsible? That the blame goes all the way to the top?
Yet I can’t help but agree, that the issue of violence against women is quite disturbing. I wonder if Kondracki’s point is to alert and educate about the continuing violence against women, or to put the UN and private corps on notice that the whole world is watching and will watch even closer, or both?
But you know what’s tragic? I’m never going to watch The Whistleblower again, nor will I watch Hotel Rwanda again — they’re just so gruesome. I guess I’m saying that I did find this film “medicinal,” to use Kondracki’s terms, and that I find these biopic/advocacy films medicinal almost all of the time, which makes me loath to see them. So here’s a question: when these films are, say, less than stellar, does that actually have a negative effect: it makes viewers never want to see these films (and therefore keep their heads in the sand about Important Issues)?
JustMeMike: Whoa! Slow down a bit. I think you’re leaping into an abyss here. It is only a less than stellar film, not truly a film to abhor, and more likely while the film lacks that excellence that we want so much, it shouldn’t cause a pell-mell journey in an opposite direction…
Didion: But remember walking out of the theater with all those viewers stunned into silence? Ugh, who wants to experience that again?
JustMeMike: Guilty as charged your honor, but I meant that as in bruised and battered. If the film was a true dud, or worse, than the crowd would have been in a muttering and grumbling mode. I mean no one was demanding a refund, or saying that the Director’s Guild should rethink Kondracki.
Didion: All right, all right, I promise I’m not saying this is a bad film. It’s actually very effective, as I think both of us have attested, in getting viewers angry. But it’s SO bruising. Really, would you want to see this film again? That’s why I say “medicinal.”
This actually gets back to one of my favorite rants: that filmmakers should never show rape onscreen — and now I want to expand that rant to include violence against women. It’s so horrifying, such that I think film ultimately just stuns the viewer and makes you not know quite what to do with all that horror — when in fact these are horrors that happen to real women and children all the time.
JustMeMike: Wow — I think we could go for hours just on this last statement of yours. While I am agreeing that the rape scene was horrific, I think that the intent was exactly as you described it — to stun and horrify. All for the purpose of making sure we knew exactly how desperate and dire these women’s situations were. But yes, sadly, it went on far too long and was simply too much for most of us to bear. And on that basis — I will not watch the film again any time soon. But I won’t go as far as never again. Let’s revisit that rape and violence against women again later on.
Didion: There’s a less horrific, but more affecting scene in which Bolkovac goes out to the woods to find a woman dead — a woman she’d tried to protect, a woman who’d suffered extreme beatings earlier, a woman she’d persuaded to testify against the traffickers, now killed by them. For the first time, Bolkovac breaks down, even though she’s surrounded by some of the worst corrupt cops and UN employees (who are certainly responsible for the murder): she screams and cries. It’s a striking scene that, for me, completely worked in achieving what you describe: showing her sense of absolute horror at what’s taking place there. It’s a strange scene, too, in that it didn’t provoke me to tears (and everything gets me teary-eyed) — but I felt a true power in the scene.
There’s also a subplot that doesn’t involve Bolkovac: a story of one of the victims’ mothers, who asks her sister-in-law for money to travel to Sarajevo to find her daughter. Very slowly, she comes to realize that her brother is the very person who sold his niece into sex slavery. This, for me, was the plot element that showed how simple greed for money is the core of the entire problem.
JustMeMike: There you go. Weisz breaks down with a combination of horror and guilt after she finds that Irka has been killed. Very potent stuff. I am on board with your thought about Greed for Money being at the core of the entire problem. Greed rarely exists on its own. It generally goes with seeking of power. When combined, there always will be victims.
But let’s take a look at the film the opposite angle. What did we like about the film? I liked Weisz/Bolkovac’s fearlessness and determination. I liked Redgrave’s grace and her soft looking but steely authority. Talk about aging and looking great. Wow. And I liked Straithairn’s beard.
Didion: And let’s specifically note that if at all possible, one really ought to have such piercing, bright blue eyes if one is permitted to age with a magnificent head of silver hair like Redgrave’s. I’d also be willing to watch David Straithairn butter pieces of bread for two hours straight.
Weisz was great — really great. But no matter how good she was, and no matter how she seemed absolutely present for all her scenes, the part didn’t allow her a whole lot of range. Sorry to keep bringing up Erin Brockovich, but that part was kind of delicious in contrast — Bolkovac was much more straight-up police in contrast.
JustMeMike: Since we’ve covered stuff that we didn’t care for, and then we slid over to stuff we did like, I’m wondering if we can find something where there is a divergence of opinion. To start I’ll offer a question — why are these monitors granted diplomatic immunity?
Didion: We do seem to be arriving at an unusual level of agreement on this one. I’m not sure why they’re granted immunity, but we can speculate that it was due to the perceived importance of protecting UN missions in general and perhaps concealing the complicity of higher-ups? Or at the very least protecting the higher-ups from having disregarded Bolkovac’s charges.
The more I think about it, the angrier I become — this film discusses such disturbing and important subjects, and shows how much they’ve been ignored by international overseers like the UN, yet it’s not a tight enough or persuasive enough film to make heads seriously roll. It was also weirdly buried with a late-summer release, as it’s the very furthest thing from a summer film — I mean, it had to compete with Rise of the Planet of the Apes!
JustMeMike: I guess we are still agreeing. The late summer opening may not be so weird. If the producer and releasing company privately feel that the film is flawed, then giving it a bad slot, as well as a limited opening, virtually guarantees a smaller ROI (return on investment). It’s called limiting your down-side because by reducing the number of screens you also reduce the number of physical pieces of film that you need.
How about this as a question: Is there something about Bolkovac’s make-up that we haven’t enough facts for? I mean in her divorce, and it was her second divorce, isn’t it still unusual for the court to decree that the husband got sole custody of the daughter. Why did that happen?
Since we don’t know — are we supposed to guess at a reason — or reasons: Is it possibly that Bolkovac was a woman who took up relationships rather easily? Maybe she slept with other police officers while still married?
And three — we witnessed a phone call from Bolkovac to the daughter — who seemed not to want to talk to her mother. The call ended all too quickly. So what is your take on these three events, either singly, or taken altogether as group?
Didion: Wow, I’ve got two very different responses to the question of Bolkovac’s personal life. The feminist in me says, I want her personal life to be as irrelevant as possible, because this is really a story about her whistleblowing. The one thing that seems obvious is that this is a woman who took her job so seriously that it was doubtless detrimental to her relationships. There’s a big moment early on when she decides to stay in Sarajevo rather than return to her daughter — and she decides to stay because she knows she’s doing good work there. Re: her custody agreement, I assumed that, as is becoming more common these days, a judge determined that her ex offered a more stable home life for her daughter than she could (and there’s a reference to her having a poor attorney). If there’s one thing I’ve learned from police procedurals on TV, it’s that cops are often too distracted to make good partners and parents. (Thank you, The Wire.)
I did find, however, that her relationship with the Dutch peacekeeper to be both wholly under-developed and more than a little nerve-wracking. I kept wondering whether he was really a bad guy, whether her leap into that relationship was poorly-considered. I think the filmmaker ultimately didn’t know how much to make this a biopic, how much to make it a thriller, and how much to make it a ripped-from-the-headlines tale. I wished Kondracki had either left out that storyline, or delved in further.
JustMeMike: You said, “As a feminist, I want her personal story to be as irrelevant as possible, because this is really a story about her whistle-blowing.” The underline italics are mine, not yours. But can you clarify that statement. Isn’t this about whistle-blowing? I think that you are right when stating that the whistle-blowing is more important than the personal story — but why is this from the perspective of a feminist, rather than just a perspective?
Didion: It gets back to Erin Brockovich (again), in which the story is humming along and she’s got the new thing going with the hot biker guy next door and she’s figuring out all the details of the PG&E coverup — and then the story screeches to a halt so she can get an earful about how she’s not spending enough time with her children. Message: women who really care about their work are bad mothers. I was furious with that element, because otherwise the film showed a working-class woman who’s given a chance to care about something beyond the usual caregiving blah blah blah.
So if Bolkovac had been portrayed as prone to extramarital sexual relationships with her co-workers and/or not a dedicated enough mother, the film would have engaged in that same kind of preachiness and cheap explanation: “oh, she’s interested in helping these women because she’s kind of a slut!” or, “her work is so absorbing that she’s returning to her old bad habits of being a bad mother!” Films are more inclined to indulge in that kind of cheap explanation with female characters more than with male characters.
Instead, I like the idea that she’s just kind of a normal, straight-laced police officer who’s appalled by the situation she encounters partly because it’s just an example of really bad police work.
JustMeMike: Okay, that works for me. Avoiding the personal story because it would come at the expense of the real story of the whistleblower. Makes sense, especially since you have experienced a similar story and witnessed a derailment because the main story was hijacked for a while.
But that last line is also puzzling. Do you really mean the situation that Bolkovac encounters is an example of bad police work? I have a problem with that. If a narcotics cop busts a drug dealer and confiscates drugs, but keeps a portion of the drugs for his own personal use, or for use in getting confidential informants to snitch, or even for re-sale, is that bad police work, or is that simply criminal behavior? I’d say that the private contractors who were heavily involved in sex trafficking were big-time criminals.
Didion: Whoops: I meant to refer to an early point in the film, when she sees the police failing to go after the wife-beating husband. It’s really early on, when no one suspects anything about the sex trafficking — and what I liked so much was that she seems to approach the issue wholly from the perspective that this is lazy/bad police work. That is, she didn’t respond “as a woman” or from any exaggerated feminine sympathy — she just wanted a crime prosecuted properly.
JustMeMike: Okay, makes sense. And yes, I liked that part very much. She became gung-ho about solving that one, and seeing that justice, or at least an investigation, stepped into the picture.
Didion: I think, after thinking about this for a couple of weeks, I most regret that Kondracki had chosen to make this as much of a thriller as it is. I think this made her inclined to gild the lily — as in, it made her exaggerate plot elements like the way the corrupt UN officials and peacekeepers went to such lengths to humiliate and discredit Bolkovac in order to keep beating and raping women sex slaves. I kept thinking, “Even if that’s true, it’s not believable, and once my trust in the story’s gone, I just don’t know what to do with all those gruesome images of women being beaten.”
JustMeMike: I’m with you on all of that including Kondracki’s decision to make the film into a thriller. Only I won’t go as far as you do. I think (like you) that this was her fundamental mistake. On that basis, I won’t call it a thriller. But I will go as far as to label it a thriller-wannabe.
Didion: I like the mixing of genres on the whole, but I do think here it muddies the waters. Can I ask one more question of you — that is, what do you think this does for Rachel Weisz’s career? I’ve been thinking lately that she’s making some smart choices lately — from The Constant Gardner to The Brothers Bloom to this … she’s good at American accents, and she’s getting a wide range of very smart acting imprinted onto the American conscience (and god knows this is where the movie money is made by international actors). What do you think — was this strategic?
JustMeMike: Absolutely strategic as in well-played. I recall first seeing her in a film about a sniper called Enemy at the Gates. She played a Russian girl called Tania Chernova and she certainly seemed European to me then. Now, she doesn’t seem European at all. I think she’s marvelous — she has the looks, and the smarts, and I think variable roles are her strong suite. By the way, Weisz has a new film coming quite soon — The Dream House — her co-stars are Daniel Craig and Naomi Watts. It is in the horror genre. Coincidentally, and strangely, Craig’s character is guess who — another Peter Ward.
I saw a preview for The Dream House recently — alongside trailers for a number of creepy thrillers (one called Martha Marcy May Marlene [whew!], and the other called Take Shelter, with the always-creepy Michael Shannon). Looks like a damn good Halloween season coming up, if you ask me.
So, JMM, do you have any final thoughts on this one? A quip? Some kind of pun on the idea of whistleblowing?
JustMeMike: Not really… I don’t think this film needs a pun from me. I would recommend the film and despite its flawed structural elements, one can walk away at least pleased that some one, even from the wilderness of Bosnia stood up and blew the whistle. I have a feeling that I should give you the last word so you can get in a final thought about on-screen violence against women. By the way, I’ll be in China for Halloween.
Didion: I’m less enthusiastic about the film overall, and not just because of the on-screen portrayal of violence against women. As much as I appreciate what Weisz and Kondracki wanted to do, it’s not as good a film as I’d like, or effective enough re: advocacy against sex trafficking.
Many thanks, JMM — and let’s keep our eyes peeled for good films coming out this fall that might offer more good conversation — maybe even one of these creepy Halloween flicks.
JustMeMike: Thank you Didion for the enjoyable dialogue. I’m ready and more than willing to toss back a few more Sidecars with you again.