I spent several hours in a car this week listening to senate hearings and then saw some of the commentary that resulted. The comment I found most interesting was when one of those testifying was called a “leaker,” which I equated to “whistleblower,” or a person who divulges something secret despite pressure from some kind of authority. Naturally my mind then wandered toward movies and the several whistleblowers (leakers) of repute whose stories have made for terrific drama on the silver screen. Following are a few of my favorites from movies worth a watch.
In no particular order…
Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront
As far as corruption goes few movies get to the heart of the matter as does Kazan’s 1954 classic. Great performances highlight this tale of a regular guy who takes on union corruption putting everything he holds dear, including his own life, on the line. This story doesn’t go quietly into the night. Instead it lingers with lessons of conscience and self-responsibility. Waterfront also brings sleaze to a memorable low.
Deep Throat in Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men
The best newspaper movie ever made, one of the best films of the 1970s and an enduring thriller. All the President’s Men doesn’t lose its power despite repeated viewings or an ending we know well. Deep Throat, played by Hal Holbrook, guides reporters, Bernstein and Woodward (played by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford) with the clues needed to break open the Watergate scandal. A historic on-screen depiction of a historic whistleblower.
Jack Godell in James Bridges’ The China Syndrome
I was conflicted about using Godell on this list. One could argue that the camera and reported in this movie are also whistleblowers in Pakula’s haunting movie about dangers in a nuclear power plant. But no one has more to lose than Jack Godell, played brilliantly by Jack Lemmon. Godell plays a manager at the power plant, a man who’s initially reluctant to rock the boat, but his conscience won’t let him stand on the sidelines. The results are devastating.
Fronk Serpico in Sidney Lumet’s Serpico
One of Al Pacino’s greatest performances comes by way of this 1973 classic. Pacino plays undercover cop, Frank Serpico, who blows the whistle on the rampant corruption in the New York City Police Department and pays a heavy price for it. Sadly, the theme of Serpico will probably always be relevant. Add to that Lumet’s intense, hard-hitting direction and this is one for the record books.
Daniel Ciello in Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City
In 1981, eight years after Serpico, Lumet tackles police corruption again. Also inspired by the true story of a New York cop who exposes corruption, this time against his own partners, Prince of the City forces us to make a judgment call depending on which side of the fence you sit on. A complex story that exists at just under three hours, Lumet was drawn to Prince of the City because he’d never read a story where no one tells the truth. Indeed, no one can be trusted here. It’s a tangled web that is compelling from beginning to end offered by a great purveyor of truth. We can all imagine being whistleblowers creates internal tangled webs and this one depicts it memorably. Treat Williams
All Survivors in Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight
A terrific screenplay, memorable performances and a compelling story led McCarthy’s 2015 drama to a Best Picture Oscar win. I commend this movie for daring to tell its story the old-fashioned way and I commend the filmmakers for attempting to tell the story of abuse by Catholic priests at all. Of course, there would be no story if survivors wouldn’t have faced their darkest fears by summing up extremely painful memories. They deserve applause if by their telling of those stories one child was saved.
Karen Silkwood in Mike Nichols’ Silkwood
One of my favorite Meryl Streep roles shows her as true-to-life whistleblower Karen Silkwood in Nichols’ outstanding 1983 movie. Similar to Jack Godell, Silkwood pays with dear life for attempting to expose radioactive leaks at her place of employment. The story here is told so truthfully and the characters are so fully realized that it feels as though I’m watching a documentary when I watch Silkwood. This story ends before we think it should and that is this movie’s power. The power of Silkwood the woman comes from two places – her ordinariness and her sheer will to tell the truth.
Toto in Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz
I may be stretching the whistleblower definition here, but I needed a lighthearted mention after the serious choices I made above. That said, this is a serious contender for best whistleblower in the movies is we agree these characters expose the truth or some part of a hidden story. As far as a dog can be a whistleblower then, I think Toto’s actions to expose the wizard as a regular guy playing with levers has to go down in movie history as memorable. The four recognizable friends stand trembling before the smoke and mirrors of the great and powerful Oz. They’ve completed the seemingly impossible task the Wizard told them was necessary in order for him to grant their wishes. Just as he’s abandoning the deal with great fanfare Toto sets off to pull open the curtain in as determined a fashion as one can witness. His actions thereby expose the fraud that sets forth one of the greatest adventures in filmdom.
Here are two caveats I tried to adhere to in my choices:
- I purposefully excluded documentaries.
- I excluded characters who are snitches as in gangster movies although I cheated with the whistleblower in Prince of the City because he is in essence a snitch since he’s offered leniency for his testimony.
I’d love to hear about your favorite leakers in the movies, particularly those in classic movies as they did not come to mind while I compiled this list.