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11 movies about whistleblowers that you cannot miss

Transparency Int'l

Our favourite whistleblowing film would be an unthrilling, action-free short. In it a whistleblower uncovers wrongdoing, reports it anonymously without fear of retaliation and gets on with their day. They can do so because whistleblowers worldwide are valued and fully protected. Boring, wonderful and guaranteed to put a smile on a corruption fighter's face.

Unfortunately this is not the experience of most whistleblowers, many of whom risk their jobs, freedoms and even their lives to expose wrongdoing. Their bravery has saved countless lives as well as billions of dollars, and there are some fantastic films that show what they can go through as they do the right thing; from the discovery of wrongdoing to the inner conflict about whether to expose the truth to the aftermath of their shocking revelations.

Here are the eleven best films about whistleblowers that we’ve seen. Let us know if we’ve missed a great one.

Serpico (1973)

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Whistleblower: Frank Serpico
Case
: NYPD corruption

Frank Serpico - who was depicted in this Oscar nominated drama - made history in the New York Police Department. He became the first police officer ever to speak up and report the widespread, deep rooted corruption in the force, where some police officers were taking payoffs.

There’s a great quote from Serpico’s testimony:

“There are a lot of good cops out there. Good cops would come forward if they thought there was an encouragement in the department to do so, if they thought it would do any good. But if there’s no encouragement, they’re not going to do it.”
Frank Serpico

The Laundromat (2019)

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Whistleblower: John Doe
Case: The Panama Papers

The Laundromat is an off-beat comedy-drama about the Pulitzer Prize-winning Panama Papers investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

The Panama Papers were based on millions of files leaked from law firm Mossack Fonseca by anonymous whistleblower, John Doe. They revealed many cases of money laundering, tax evasion, and bribe paying and receiving that were facilitated by tax havens and professional services. Since the leak, over a billion US dollars of taxes have been recovered and there have been investigations in more than 80 countries.

Despite attempts by Mossack Fonseca to stop the release, the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival and was released on Netflix in October 2019.

“Some people died for it… And people die still to get the word out. This movie is fun, it’s funny, but it’s really, really, really important.”
Meryl Streep

The Insider (1999)

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Whistleblower: Jeffrey Wigand
Case
: Big Tobacco

A research chemist and a television producer try to let the public know that tobacco companies had been intentionally making their cigarettes more addictive while the tobacco industry tries to discredit them.

The information that real-life whistleblower, Jeffrey Wigand, revealed led to US$246 billion being paid by tobacco companies toward the costs of tobacco-related illnesses.

Erin Brockovich (2000)

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Whistleblower: Two utility employees
Case: Hinkley groundwater contamination

Erin Brockovich is a drama that tells the story of a woman who in 1993 built a legal case against a major California utility. It had been contaminating a large area with chromium and endangering the health of more than 600 families.

Brockovich found out about the wrongdoing from two former utility employees who been told to take over three decades of historical records to the rubbish dump. These records showed how much the utility had polluted the local drinking water.

The whistleblowers started a process that secured justice for those affected: the class-action lawsuit against the utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, was settled for more than US$330 million, making it the largest direct action settlement in US history.

Snowden (2016)

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Whistleblower: Edward Snowden
Case
: NSA surveillance

While an employee of the United States government, Edward Snowden revealed details of classified government surveillance programs used to spy on millions of ordinary people though their own emails, phone calls and webcams.

Many consider Edward Snowden a martyr. He lost one kind of life and gained a new less stable one in Moscow without his family. However, he said: “I am incredibly fortunate… I think the greatest freedom that I’ve gained is the fact that I no longer have to worry about what happens tomorrow, because I’m happy with what I’ve done today.”

Nonetheless, doing the right thing shouldn't have cost Snowden so much. His experiences show the need to protect people who blow the whistle with comprehensive and well-enforced legislation. This would shield them from retaliation and maintain their anonymity so that they can make a difference and then go on with their lives as normal.

Crime + Punishment (2018)

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Whistleblowers: The NYPD12
Case
: NYPD crime quotas

Feature-length documentary, Crime + Punishment explores the largest police department in the US through the lens of a group of fearless Black and Latino active duty officers, who risked their careers and safety to expose the pressure they were under to meet banned quotas.

They exposed how the NYPD targeted vulnerable minority communities, arresting young people on low-level charges, mainly later dismissed. This made more than US$900 million of the department’s annual budget in associated fines and fees. The group's fight led to a class action lawsuit against the department in 2015.

Films 4 Transparency

Crime + Punishment is one many corruption-themed films shown by our festival, Films 4 Transparency, which promotes documentary as a powerful anti-corruption advocacy tool, with the proven capacity to galvanise action, impact on policy and mobilise public opinion.

The Post (2017)

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Whistleblower: Daniel Ellsberg
Case
: The Pentagon Papers

Following a whistleblower's leak, the owner of the Washington Post and her executive editor risk their freedom and livelihoods to reveal the secret activities of the United States government during the Vietnam War. These included secretly bombing Laos and Cambodia.

Seeing people make the hardest decision of their lives poses the question: what would you do if you had the chance to expose the actions of arguably the most powerful government in the world? Similarly to many whistleblowers, these journalists are living normal lives one day and then everything suddenly changes.

Silkwood (1983)

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Whistleblower: Karen Silkwood
Case
: Kerr-McGee nuclear site safety

While working at a nuclear fuel fabrication site, Karen Silkwood (played by Meryl Streep in one of her many whistleblower films) finds out that worker safety violations are being covered up.

This tense thriller brings to life the experience of discovering serious wrongdoing and trying to find out more while the company responsible takes drastic measures to keep the truth hidden.

The Informant (2009)

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Whistleblower: Mark Whitacre
Case
: Price-fixing in agriculture

The vice-president of a food processing corporation wears a wire to gather evidence against the company over its price-fixing of lysine, an additive used in the livestock industry. During this time he also embezzles millions of dollars from the company and attempts to become its CEO.

The central character of this comedy shows us how not to be a whistleblower, as he loses sight of why price-fixing should be exposed and sees a chance for personal gain.

All the Presidents Men (1976)

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Whistleblower: Deep Throat
Case
: Watergate

Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein investigate the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

This political drama shows the hard work that often builds on whistleblower leaks as journalists sift through a maze of information, people and events to find the truth about a scandal. Their determination can be crucial to successfully exposing wrongdoing.

Official Secrets (2019)

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Whistleblower: Katharine Gun
Case
: Spying on the UN Security Council

Official Secrets tells the story of Katharine Gun, a linguist at British intelligence listening station Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). In 2003, she leaked a memo from the US National Security Agency (NSA) to The Observer newspaper. The NSA memo asked GCHQ staff to help spy on members of the UN Security Council so they could be pressured into supporting the US-led invasion of Iraq.

This drama/thriller shows Gun being interrogated, losing her job and being prosecuted for trying to prevent an illegal war from taking many lives. At a screening of Official Secrets she commented on what many whistleblowers go through: “It is not an easy road to take. For that reason we have to change the system, so that people are protected in the future.”

What’s your favourite whistleblower film? Let us know with a comment below or tell us on Twitter @anticorruption.

Cover pictures: Paramount Pictures / Open Road Films / Sony Movies / crimeandpunishmentdoc.com

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