Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s documentary The Great Hack, released directly to Netflix this past summer, opens at Burning Man. It’s there that we find Brittany Kaiser, one-time business director of Cambridge Analytica, the consulting firm outed for misusing data harvested from Facebook and potentially affecting the outcomes of the 2016 presidential election and the Brexit referendum. The film gets up close and personal with Kaiser as she flees to Thailand and returns to Europe to testify against her former employer, CEO Alexander Nix.
She provides valuable insight on the extent of the company’s wrongdoing, but the film refrains from making her out to be a hero. Amer and Noujaim instead go the print-the-legend route and cover the entire fog of controversy that soon surrounded Kaiser, as some applauded her stand in the face of power, and others denounced her as a complicit party looking to get some money or attention by turning on her boss.
Going by pure verisimilitude, documentary cinema has the edge on fictionalized films about real life, and the gulf of difference in how the two fields have approached portraying the whistleblower – as a concept, and as a human individual – lays that bare. With upper-level malfeasances all over the place and citizens desperate for someone to do something, the past year or so has seen an odd spike in movies about people speaking truth to power, no matter the consequences. These narrative works make use of a universal model of struggle, pitting a morally upstanding David against a sinister, institutional Goliath. This approach may amount to stirring drama, having someone easy to root for, but it all bears little resemblance to how similar events have played out beyond the cineplex. Everyone loves someone who does the right thing, but for the audience, only within the four walls of the theater can the right thing be so clear-cut.
The whistleblower is something of an American myth, a type ossified over decades of pop culture valorizing those who dare to go up against The System. Those are the terms of the conflict, always an all-but-independent operator (if they are a lawyer, the head of the firm will gruffly tell them to stop wasting resources and pursue something safer and more lucrative; if they are a journalist, this talk will come from an editor) who puts it all on the line to get some justice for the common folk, possibly unaware that they’ve been victimized. The 2000 film Erin Brockovich managed the triple crown of box-office returns, critical praise, and Oscar glory for the retelling of a single mother’s mission to mount a lawsuit against a gas-and-electric behemoth. It pushed all the right buttons: an incredible true instance of victory for the little guy, hard proof that good can still win out over evil.
That sure sounds like the model for Dark Waters, Todd Haynes’ account of the corporate lawyer Robert Bilott’s decision to switch teams and prosecute DuPont Chemical for contaminating huge swaths of West Virginian land. But in interviews, Haynes has clarified that his central point of reference was in fact All the President’s Men, the classic retelling of Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation that uncovered Richard Nixon’s wiretapping at the Watergate Hotel. In any case, all three films revolve around what Haynes articulated to this writer in a soon-to-run interview as “the sensation of discovering something covered up”. The truth would be that covered-up something, and once our protagonist shines a light on it, whatever resistance may have come from management or ornery townspeople evaporates. These films court a feel-good response, even if the final moments of Dark Waters cycle through title cards explaining that DuPont continues to wreak wide-scale ruin on the environment. At least we’ve got someone out there fighting the good fight.
This draws a harsh contrast with the reception of whistleblowers in the US and UK of today, which has not been nearly as universally positive. Once again, documentary tells the real story; such recent films as Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour and Risk, along with this past summer’s XY Chelsea, have all focused on the public’s polarized impression of the political whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Their supporters have vaunted them as defenders of the republic, courting charges of treason just to expose crimes at the highest level of classified intelligence. Detractors have branded them traitors, their actions having jeopardized the security of American operatives just to promote a partisan agenda. An honest assessment lies somewhere in between, far closer to the former take, but these films recognize that the conflicted reception is the meat of the work.
Even when whistleblowers do face opposition, fictionalized films depict them in a less ambiguous light. As Dan Jones, the Senate investigator responsible for uncovering the horrific torture practices utilized by American forces at black sites in the “war on terror”, Adam Driver leads Scott Z Burns’ terrific procedural The Report. The drum-tight script focuses on Jones’ quest to get his scandalous memo on the inefficacy of torture out into the world, and while his efforts were hindered both by Republicans and the hesitation of his overseer Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), the film concludes with him triumphant.
Same goes for Official Secrets, in which Keira Knightley plays the British translator Katharine Gun, leaker of confidential documents revealing that the US had illegally spied on diplomats deciding a UN resolution on the Iraq war. Like Jones, Gun cuts an admirable figure, unquestionably correct even in her difficult choices. These films sell a relatively sober version of a fantasy, in which sunlight really can be the best disinfectant. The revelation of ill deeds is all it takes to place the whistleblower in the right, while back on planet Earth, the people will dig their heels in on whatever beliefs they’ve already held. Look no further than the current hubbub over the mystery agent who pulled back the curtain on Donald Trump’s possibly impeachable conduct on a phone call with the president of Ukraine. In the future, when Jay Roach or whoever turns this all into an Oscar horse fall release, the anonymous subversive will undoubtedly get a swell of string music and a vindicating third act. Meanwhile, those at the uppermost levels of authority are figuring out how to get this person in prison, with ardent support from huge swaths of the populace.
A greater ethical clarity sadly absent from everyday life can exist in these films, where it’s not that the moral nuance gets flattened as much as our relation to it. In the new reboot of Charlie’s Angels, our everywoman Elena (Naomi Scott) discovers that the miracle doohickey manufactured by the tech giant she works for can be turned into a weapon, and she does what she thinks she’s supposed to. For reporting the problem, she’s rewarded with a dismissal from the office and later an attempt on her life, but the film takes good care of her. She’s a feminist icon, both for her scientific acumen and her moral compass, and she makes it official in the final scenes by becoming an Angel herself. Her heroism couldn’t be plainer, and it earns her a feel-good finish the likes of which her real-world equivalents will never get to enjoy.