20 best movies about whistleblowers

20 best movies about whistleblowers

Agata Malik-Bosak |

The subject of whistleblowers is popular in movies. Over the past decades, many of them have been produced in Hollywood and Europe. Each film tells a fictional or true story. However, more plots are based on real-life cases.

The movies helped to change the stereotypes about whistleblowers and to initiate appreciation of their important social role. Previously whistleblowers were associated with unethical people who defamed and slandered others.

This approach has changed over the years while financial frauds and other misconducts committed by famous people or large corporations were revealed to the public. As a result, a new modern image of whistleblowers standing up against corruption, illegal business activities, or exploitation of people was created. They began to be presented as heroes and whistleblower movies helped create this viewpoint.

The true story about the own life of Edward Snowden, Michael Clayton, Karen Silkwood, and many other real-life whistleblowers who exposed the wrongdoing of chemical companies, the big tobacco industry, corporate malfeasance, or government non-fair game are worth to be watched.

It is worth noticing that many of the stories were revealed due to the independence and free speech of investigative journalism. Reporters of the Washington Post, The New York Times, and many others were often cooperating with the whistleblowers.

The Dropout (2022)

The TV series tells the real-life story about the career of Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) and Theranos, the company she founded.

Eight episodes follow aspirations of Holmes to become an inventor and billionaire comparable to Steve Jobs. She was supposed to do this using a device called Edison - capable of analyzing blood from just a few drops in a quick and multidimensional way.

This fact-based story ends when Theranos employees exposed misconduct and became real-life whistleblowers as they revealed the truth of how the revolutionary project was actually carried out.

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019)

A documentary about the most famous biotechnology startup of the XXI century and own life of its founder Elizabeth Holmes.

Theranos worked on miniaturizing blood analysis equipment. The director shows how huge attention was attached in the company to marketing and contacts with the media with simultaneous neglect of the R&D aspect and opinions of medical authorities.

The company's managers Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani seemed to believe in the success of their project. They eagerly reached for the investors' money and patients' trust.

Time has shown that the project does not work, and instead of admitting a business failure Holmes chose to lie.

Official Secrets (2019)

"Official Secrets" is a true story of a British whistleblower who disclosed classified information about an illegal National Security Agency (NSA) spy operation related to the initiation of the Iraq war.

In 2003, Katharine Gun leaks a memo revealing a joint US-UK operation to spy on UN Security Council diplomats to influence a resolution supporting the Iraq invasion. The Observer newspaper publishes the note, sparking public and media interest. As a result of an investigation, Gun confesses to leaking the memo. She is arrested and charged with violating the Official Secrets Act.

Katharine enlists the help of lawyers from Liberty. Her defense argues that she acted out of loyalty to her country by trying to prevent an illegal war - the Iraq war. It's discovered that the Attorney General changed his stance on the war's legality after meeting with Bush Administration lawyers.

On the trial day, all charges against Katharine are dropped, as the prosecution would have exposed the government's false pretenses for war. The film highlights the human cost of the Iraq War. It ends with Katharine addressing the media after her case is dismissed.

The Laundromat (2019)

”The Laundromat” is a biographical comedy-drama with Meryl Streep in the lead role. The plot is another real-life story and tells about money laundering, tax havens, and bribes to avoid paying taxes. An anonymous whistleblower discloses data from the top law firm and office supervising these processes. This leads to the leak of the Panama Papers and the initiation of economic investigations in more than 80 countries against particular individuals and companies.

The Report (2019)

"The Report", one of the whistleblowing movies, is a political thriller based on real events, with CIA activities as the central theme. In his over six thousand seven hundred paged report, Daniel Jones, a clerk played by Adam Driver, reveals facts about the methods of interrogation and torture of prisoners by the CIA. These data the government decides to be kept as official secrets until Jones published them.

Dark Waters (2019)

“Dark Waters” is based on the 2016 New York Times Magazine article "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare" by Nathaniel Rich.

In the biographical role of corporate attorney Robert Bilott, Mark Ruffalo fights against an international chemical company DuPont. The topic concerns water pollution resulting in mass deaths of the local animals.

The Post (2017)

In 1965, war correspondent and military analyst Daniel Ellsberg witnesses the Vietnam War. Upon returning to the United States, he noticed government conspiracy as the press was falsely assured about the favorably progressing of the Vietnam War. Ellsberg decides to steal Pentagon files about the conflict. He discovered that successive presidents of the USA have concealed unfavorable facts.

Years later, The Washington Post reporters were informed about the existence of these documents and were able to shake public opinion.

Snowden (2016)

One of many productions about Edward Snowden. Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) copied and revealed around the world the intelligence data of the National Security Agency NSA, during his cooperation with the CIA. These classified documents were distributed through reporters of investigative journalists.

This is how Snowden shared with millions the truth about how the authorities use private devices and what kind of NSA’s illegal surveillance techniques are used to track ordinary citizens.

The Fifth Estate (2013)

The "Fifth Estate" is the next of whistleblower movies and tells the story of WikiLeaks and its founders Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg. The platform was created for whistleblowers, to allow them to send anonymous reports, classified documents, and secret data to disclose government secrets and corporate crimes. Over time, managing national secrets raises dilemmas and forces us to alternatively reflect on the consequences of leaving them hidden.

The movie also shows Assange living in the London embassy of Ecuador to avoid being arrested.

It is worth to be added that Daniel wrote a book about his input to WikiLeaks on which this film was based.

The Whistleblower (2010)

In 2010 Rachel Weisz starred in a fact-based film with a whistleblower theme. Weisz, as policewoman Kathryn Bolkovac, takes part in a mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina on behalf of the UN, after the war ended in the 90s. In post-war Bosnia, she discovers the illegal women trafficking and the involvement of local authorities and United Nations diplomats and officials in this ill practice.

The story was also described by Bolkovac in a book titled "The Whistleblower" - Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors, and One Woman's Fight for Justice.

The Informant! (2009)

Another work worth mentioning is the film from 2009, starring Matt Damon. "The Informant!" tells the story of Mark Whitacre, a vice president at a feed additive company. Whitacre, apart from personal gain, becomes an FBI informant and star witness who starts cooperating with them to build price-fixing accusation. He decided to steal secrets and expose a plot to fix prices illegally at his company.

The Most Dangerous Man in America (2009)

"The Most Dangerous Man in America" tells the story of Daniel Ellsberg, a former military analyst, and Pentagon insider. He leaked top-secret documents to the New York Times in 1971, exposing lies about the Vietnam War told by five US Presidents and the United States government. The leaked documents, known as the Pentagon Papers, revealed the war's devastating impact on millions of lives. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger labeled Ellsberg as "the most dangerous man in America" who needed to be stopped.

Despite facing 115 years in prison on espionage and conspiracy charges, Ellsberg fought back. His actions contributed to the eventual end of the Vietnam War. The events surrounding the Pentagon Papers led directly to the Watergate scandal and President Nixon's downfall.

"The Most Dangerous Man in America" presents the inside of this true story, featuring interviews with Ellsberg, his family, colleagues, critics, government officials, Vietnam veterans, anti-war activists, Watergate principals, attorneys, and journalists. Additionally, it includes audiotapes from President Nixon and his inner circle of advisors, providing a comprehensive account of the events that transformed American political discourse.

Michael Clayton (2007)

Tony Gilroy, the creator of the Bourne series, shot a drama titled "Michael Clayton". George Clooney, as an experienced lawyer, deals with the defense of the interests of unethical enterprises daily. The man falls into an intense corporate espionage network in which one of his clients is involved. Clayton decides to start a fair game, expose wrongdoing and act against the interests of his mandatary. Another star, Tilda Swinton, who plays a ruthless lawyer, introduces many scenes full of tension.

Anxiety, fear, and even paranoid behaviors shown in the film illustrate the emotions often accompanying whistleblowers.

North Country (2005)

The work of Niki Caro was created in 2005. The main characters cast by Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand brought them nominations for the Oscar award in the best actress category. Theron played a role of a miner Josey Aimes, a victim of violence against women in the miners' environment. She was responsible for creating the first sexual harassment class action lawsuit in U.S. history.

This based on a true story film played an important role in creating a very strong social movement #MeToo.

The Constant Gardener (2005)

The following movie was made as an adaptation of the novel "The Constant Gardener" and starred Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz. Weisz played an activist and wife of a British diplomat and avid horticulturalist Justin Quayle. They both live in Kenya. The woman was murdered after discovering some illegal practices of a pharmaceutical company related to local deaths and trials of a new drug.

The motives applied in the plot of "Constant Gardener" are Third World communities' exploitation and corporate greed at the expense of people's health.

The main character’s attention to his plants is a recurring background theme, from which the movie's title "Constant Gardener" is derived.

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Julia Roberts starred in the film "Erin Brockovich", another real-life story belonging to whistleblower movies. Erin Brockovich is a heroine and legal clerk who organized a formal crusade against Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). The company seriously contaminated groundwater with carcinogenic hexavalent chromium in the small town of Hinkley in California resulting the water supply pollution As a consequence of the company's actions, many members of the local community suffered irreversible damage to their health and personal life.

The attitude of Brockovich led her to win. The victims were paid by PG&E the most significant environmental compensation in U.S. history. The production brought 18 film awards and 32 nominations.

Oscar-winning performance for best actress Julia Roberts is worth mentioning as well.

The Insider (1999)

The role of a whistleblower in "The Insider" was played by Russell Crowe. This fact-based film tells the story of Jeffrey Wigand, a biochemist, and a big tobacco company employee. Wigand exposed the unfair practices of his employers dealing with adding illegal addictive substances to tobacco during the manufacturing process. Official secrets of the tobacco industry were shocking. Vanity Fair reported details of the case in an article ”The Man Who Knew Too Much" in May 1996.

Silkwood (1983)

The drama "Silkwood" tells the story of Karen Silkwood, a nuclear power plant worker. The company violated workers' rights guaranteed by law and regulations which directly affected their health and safety. The internal data as proof of the abuse were supposed to be leaked to the public by Silkwood as classified documents distributed to investigative journalists. On her way to prove the illegal practices of her employers, the woman died in mysterious circumstances. This death is still not explained.

Meryl Streep and Cher star in this movie as nuclear power plant employees who exposed worker safety violations.

All the President's Men (1976)

W 1976, another iconic film was released. In "All the President's Men" Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman were starring. The movie tells a story about the Watergate scandal, one of the biggest political scandals in the USA. "Deep Throat", a character acting as a whistleblower, was providing significant information anonymously through reporters of the Washington Post - Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

In 2005 media revealed who was hidden behind the Deep Throat nickname. This famous whistleblower was Mark Felt, then a deputy director of the FBI.

Serpico (1973)

One of the first cinematic stories using the whistleblower motif is the 1973 film "Serpico". Al Pacino played the leading role in this movie. The Hollywood legend recreated the character of a real New York policeman Frank Serpico, who, against all odds, tries to discover the illegal activities of his superiors.

The screenplay is based on the biography of Serpico, a police officer who acted as a whistleblower and contributed to initiating an investigation into corruption in the NYPD.

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