erik lundegaard

The Whistleblower

The Whistleblower (2011)


It’s hard to make a movie about sexual exploitation without getting a little exploitative, but “The Whistleblower,” based on a true story, and from first-time director Larysa Kondracki, manages to pull it off. The other danger is a tendency toward the preachy and obvious. Less luck there.

We begin in the wrong place—in Russia, with two girls, Raya and Irka, who wind up sexually trafficked in Bosnia—rather than where we should begin, in Lincoln, Nebraska, with our hero, Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz), a cop who is trying to get transferred to Atlanta, where her ex-husband is moving with their now teenaged daughter. No dice. But her captain mentions how they’re looking for peacekeepers in Bosnia. Pay is good: 100 grand, tax free, for six months work. “Bosnia?” she says, surprised and intrigued. I wish her reaction had been more American. “Bosnia? Which one is that again?”

On the busride into Sarajevo she sees a cemetery, row after row of small white tombstones, a silent reminder of the war that’s just been; then she’s part of a group of recruits getting a pep talk from Bill Hynes (Liam Cunningham), the head of Democra, the security agency she’s working for. “You’ve been hired to represent the U.S. as a beacon of hope,” he says, but something in his severe manner and overly clipped American tone made me think, a) the actor wasn’t American (Yes: Cunningham is Irish), and, b) the character is unlikable and corrupt (Yes again).

Bolkovac’s early scenes are fish-out-of-water scenes, as she tries to get a handle on the culture and corruption. Confronted with a Muslim woman who’s been beaten by her husband, she has to deal with the racism of the local cops (“Woman is Muslim; she deserves it”) and the limits of U.S. power. “We aren’t here as investigators,” a colleague tells her. “We monitor. Sometimes stepping back is part of the job.”

But she doesn’t step back, and, zip-zip, she helps land the first conviction for domestic violence since the war. This brings her to the attention of Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), the Commissioner of IPTF, the International Police Task Force, an arm of the United Nations, who commends her and promotes her. Because she truly admires her? Or because she wants to keep an eye on her?

That’s the thing with these types of thrillers. There are three basic questions:

  1. What’s the corruption?
  2. Who can you trust?
  3. How high does it go?

The corruption, we know, is human trafficking. Basically we’ve been waiting all this time for Bolkovac’s path to cross the path of the Russian girls from the beginning. When it finally does, when Raya turns up beaten and abused at a station house and says something about “the Florida Bar,” Bolkovac doesn’t hesitate. She drives there at night. The bar is in the process of being raided and girls in skimpy outfits are being led out. Inside, Bolkovac finds, in a safe in the main, dark room, money and passports, and Polaroids of girls topless and tied up pinned to the walls. Some are being fondled, and worse, by men in UN T-shirts. In a dingy, concrete backroom, straight out of “Silence of the Lambs,” she finds stained mattresses, syringes, bras and heavy chains. At this point, if the main thought of the audience could be articulated, it would’ve sounded like the voice of a haunted house in most supernatural thrillers: GET OUT!

Bolkovac keeps investigating. The girls in the skimpy outfits were supposedly taken to a shelter but they never arrived. A suspect colleague, Fred Murray (David Hewlett), tells her the bar is legit and the girls are just waitresses, but she tells him there’s something fucked-up about that bar. “This is Bosnia,” he snaps back, “These people specialize in fucked-up.” The case she builds against Murray is strong—he’s in the Polaroids, he’s involved in bribes—but the response from Democra higher-ups is a shrug. “All international personnel have immunity,” she’s told.

But she can go after the local bar owner. And for that she’ll need testimony. From the girls.

“The Whistleblower” is about human trafficking, which is obviously bad, and the heroine is fighting not only the bad guys but two image-conscious corporations (Democra and the U.N.), so she’s obviously good, but there’s something needlessly muddy about the movie. We get too many scenes back in Russia with Raya’s mother. We get a starchy official, Laura Levin (Monica Bellucci), who says, after one girl in her custody has been kidnapped, “We have a system that works here,” allowing Bolkovac to respond, “For who?” and walk away. Meanwhile, the two Russian girls try our patience. They flinch from and fight Bolkovac, who’s obviously tying to help them, and don’t walk away from the men exploiting them when they have the chance.

How could the movie have been better? By focusing on issues of loyalty.

It’s implied that Bolkovac is most loyal to her job—that that’s how she loses her daughter in a custody battle with the father. She even uses this fact to get the Russian girls to talk. “I have a daughter and she was taken away by force, and I can’t change that,” she says. “Maybe I can change what happens to you.” The girls, taciturn before this revelation, now have questions. Will they be safe? Does Bolkovac promise? Bolkovac says they’ll be safe. She promises.

Her loyalty is thus to the case more than to the girls. She gets the girls to go out on a limb, as she has done, to further the case. But at what risk to the girls?

The other side has its loyalties, too: colleagues who are loyal to corrupt colleagues; company men who are loyal to the company. I’m not suggesting a moral equivalency here; I’m suggesting that while the movie is about corruption—specifically: men profiting from the sexual drives of other men through the exploitation of women—once that’s unearthed, once it’s known, the question for everyone involved becomes, “Who are you loyal to?” Done right, the audience might have questioned the loyalties in their own lives. Instead we merely think, “How awful.”

Eventually Bolkovac gets the evidence she needs and gets word out. The irony is that, in the real world, the reaction was more or less like the reaction of Democra’s employees in the film: it shrugged. The greater irony is that Democra is not the name of the U.S. company supplying police officers to Bosnia and other parts of the world. Bolkovac is Bolkovac, Rees is Rees, but Democra is DynCorp, which was founded in 1946, has corporate headquarters in Falls Church, Va., and offices managed out of Fort Worth, Tex. Its 2008 revenue was $2.1 billion. It’s growing. So even here, in a movie about the battle to uncover the bad guys at this company, the company remains hidden.

As much as I like looking at Rachel Weisz, too, I wanted a bigger, tougher broad in the role. There’s a scene where she gets into a shoving match with one of the corrupt Democra men but I didn’t buy it. She came up to his chest. Here, for example is Weisz at the premiere with the real Kathryn Bolkovac:

Rachel Weisz and Kathryn Bolkovac at the premiere of 'The Whistleblower'

The difference between the two, the constant demand for the woman on the left, is part of Hollywood’s corruption. And ours.

—June 1, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard