Review: ‘The Whistleblower’
Sex Trafficking and Military Contractors
Friday, August 12, 2011
Amid all the 3D silliness of "Glee" and "Final Destination," filmgoers will also be able to choose from a pair of reality based thrillers including "The Whistleblower" (opening August 12 at Landmark's La Jolla Village), about Kathryn Bolkovac and her revelations about sex trafficking in Bosnia.
Bolkovac is a former Nebraska cop who was hired on by the U.S. company DynCorp to perform duties as a U.N. International Police Force monitor. She would eventually file a lawsuit in Great Britain against DynCorp for unfair dismissal over protected disclosure or whistleblowing. She recounted her experiences in the book, "The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors and One Woman's Fight For Justice," which she co-authored in 2011 with Cari Lynn.
The film opens with the divorced Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) trying to get transferred from Lincoln, Nebraska to Atlanta in order to be closer to her daughter who lives with the dad. When she can't get the transfer she signs up for highly paid work as a peacekeeper for the UN in Bosnia. She arrives in Bosnia filled with hope of helping rebuild a war torn country and making a difference. But what she soon discovers the unpleasant reality that many of those who are suppose to be helping and protecting the people are actually contributing to the problems. At first she think it's just a few officers taking bribes to look the other way in cases of prostitution. Then she discovers officers paying for teen girl prostitutes. And finally she realizes how widespread the problem is and that some of the UN peacekeepers are actually participating in the sex trafficking. But these international peacekeepers hired by private companies are all immune from prosecution.
"The Whistleblower" marks the feature directing debut of Canadian filmmaker Larysa Kondracki, and boasts a number of woman in front of and behind the camera in bringing this tale of the exploitation of young woman to the big screen and a wider mainstream audience. The film is fueled by a sense of outrage at both the horrific crimes and by the inability to make anyone responsible pay a price for their crimes. The film gives us a story that's grueling, infuriating, and at times heartbreaking. There is such a sense of tragedy as the most vulnerable people -- young girls -- are being betrayed by the very people that are supposed to be protecting them.
Bolkovac, as a former Nebraska police officer, arrives with that American can-do-attitude and idealism, and she's shocked when she can't beat the corruption she sees around her. This is a David and Goliath story but without a satisfying resolution but it's a resolution that the filmmakers cannot change since it is based on actual events.
Kondracki, who co-wrote the screenplay with Eilis Kirwan, delivers a film that is earnest and passionate about its subject matter. It's compelling to watch because the story is so hard to believe or should I say it's a story you don't want to believe because you don't want to think people are capable of such cruelty and callousness. What Bolkovac does is akin to Serpico fighting police corruption amongst New York City cops or Woodward and Bernstein uncovering the Watergate scandal. But Kondracki doesn't invest her film with the same sense of tension. She delivers less of a social/political thriller and more of a diatribe on the problem and Bolkovac's struggle to bring the truth to light. We feel Bolkovac's sense of outrage but we don't -- until close to the end -- feel the danger of her situation as the lone person speaking out against these crimes. There's a sense that Bolkovac doesn't perceive any danger because she think she is simply doing her job and doing it well. But Kondracki needs to convey more effectively the discrepancy between Bolkovac perception of the world and the real thing. But Kondracki does a good job conveying -- in a kind of "Law and Order" fashion -- the procedural aspects of the case and how Bolkovac put her detective skills to good use. What she was ill prepared for was the depth of corruption and the political aspects of the case. She is most definitely out of her depth but her dogged determination and unfailing sense of justice give her the tools she needs to fight a good fight.
Weisz is an interesting and ultimately effective choice as Bolkovac. I have always found Weisz to be a bit grating but not necessarily in a bad way. She seems uninterested in ingratiating herself with the audience in the way stars like Tom Hanks and George Clooney do. Those male stars always want to be liked and sympathetic. But Weisz displays a quality that has been put to good effects in "The Shape of Things," "The Constant Gardener," and now "The Whistleblower." In all these films her characters go about their business with little concern for how others perceive their behavior or for what consequences may result. As Bolkovac, Weisz gives us a character who is not initially easy to get close to and she doesn't seem to strike rapport with her co-workers. So part of the battle is that she has few allies and doesn't know how to cultivate them. But what Weisz also invests in her character is an unswerving passion to do the right thing and to see the innocent protected, and justice served. Her character is admirable but not in a warm and fuzzy kind of way, which is sometimes how Hollywood likes to depict idealists or crusading protagonists. Maybe it's a reflection of all the women behind the camera that we can get a realistic, multi-dimensional female character in a story like this and she doen't have to be like Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich." She can have some genuine grit and complexity.
Also worthy of mention is Roxana Condurache as the young girl Raya that becomes symbolic of all the young girls exploited in sex trafficking, and the one Bolkovac is so determined to save. Condurache is simply outstanding and her performance breaks our hearts.
An interesting side note: the photos from the film are all credited to Cary Fukunaga, the indie director and cinematographer of "Sin Nombre." He's not credited with anything else on the film. It's not often that a film gets someone of this caliber to take its stills. He worked with one of the film's co-producers, Amy Kaufman, on "Sin Nombre" so there's a reason for the connection but it's unexpected. Just like having Steven Soderbergh serving as a second unit director on "The Hunger Games" (directed by Gary Ross) is unexpected and places an overly qualified person in a crew position.
"The Whistleblower" (rated R for disturbing violent content including a brutal sexual assault, graphic nudity, and language) is one of those issue films that is more passionate and sincere that artistic but it has such a compelling story that it demands being seen despite its flaws. The film does effectively convey a sense of trust and innocence betrayed, and it raises important questions about how the UN and the U.S. might want to proceed in their use of private contractors.
Companion viewing: "The Constant Gardener," "Serpico," "All the President's Men"