Fox // 2010 // 112 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // January 24th, 2012
Nothing is more dangerous than the truth.
Everyone who passes high school history learns that slavery was abolished around the time of the American Civil War (with the Emancipation Proclamation, the end of the war, or the Fourteenth Amendment; take your pick). Typically, that's where talk of slavery ends, at least in American classrooms. However, if you want to really depress yourself, look up Amnesty International's statistics on modern slavery. Sure, nowadays we call them "prostitution rings" or "sex trafficking," but fundamentally slavery has not gone away. Despite its ubiquity, little can be done about the practice. Governments don't want to get involved because of the expense of investigations that often prove fruitless. When government contractors are involved, there's even less motivation to investigate the practice. That is, unless someone puts the pressure on. The Whistleblower is the story of one such woman, a United Nations peacekeeper who spoke out against a sex trafficking ring. Though it's buoyed by some excellent performances, the script can't shake some structural problems that lead to a film with some wasted potential.
Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz, The Fountain) is a cop from Nebraska with a terrible home life. She volunteers to be involved in the U.N.'s peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia. There, she uncovers a sex trafficking operation with ties to a U.S. defense contractor. Unable to keep silent, Kathryn begins the thankless job of becoming The Whistleblower.
These kinds of hot-button issue films can be a bit tricky, especially when they're thrillers. Obviously there's a need to remain true to the story that inspired the film, especially when it's a story about something as significant as human trafficking. However, there's also a need to ensure that the film is compelling as well, and real life rarely conforms to the kind of three-act structures we expect of modern films, especially thrillers. Thus, filmmakers are always riding the line between changing enough to make everything interesting, while not changing so much that their film bears no resemblance to the original story that was so compelling in the first place.
The main problem with The Whistleblower is that it doesn't quite know how to ride that line appropriately. Rather than going straight for the thriller angle and dropping us right into place in Bosnia, the film squanders its first act setting up Kathryn's crumbling stateside life. Yes, it's important that she has a child. Yes, it's important that she's divorced and will not have custody. I'm sure these things help establish her character and connect her to her real-life counterpart. However, we've seen too many moments like these in other films, so no matter how true to life they really are they feel forced here. They also keep us from the real action, which is the way that Kathryn is going to find and expose the prostitution ring.
Luckily, the story is so compelling that it generally overcomes the initial missteps in the plot. The idea of sex trafficking (especially of minors) is chilling enough to immediately up the stakes once Kathryn gets to Bosnia. Once we know the extent of the ring and the hoops through which Kathryn will have to jump, our involvement as an audience immediately increases as well. Once The Whistleblower really has us, it doesn't let up until the end; it's just unfortunate that it takes so long to get us to that point of no return.
Even if the plot isn't entirely compelling, the casting is simply perfect. Rachel Weisz has been underutilized as an actor. Based on her performance here, that's criminal. Apparently, she turned the film down years ago (while she was pregnant!) but then changed her mind recently when she found out the film hadn't been produced. Thank goodness the people behind the project waited for her. Despite the fact that many of the film's earlier scenes feel weighted down, Weisz is always amazing to watch. Vanessa Redgrave proves she's still got her chops, and David Straithairn impresses as usual.
The Whistleblower (Blu-ray) is a solid technical effort as well. The film mirrors its dark story with a similarly dark, gritty visual scheme that's well represented in this 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded high definition transfer. Detail is strong, though the high contrast cinematography means we lose a bit of detail in the shadows. Colors are muted but well saturated, and there is no significant digital manipulation or authoring problems. The 5.1 DTS-HD track does a similarly good job presenting the filmmakers' intentions. Dialogue is clean and clear from the front, while the surrounds are used mainly for ambient effects. The film's overly ambitious score sounds clear across the soundscape.
Sadly, the disc's lone extra is a 6-minute featurette on "The Real Whistleblower" that introduces us briefly to Kathryn Bolkovac. It's pretty shallow, though it does give us some info on the story behind the film. However, considering how much passion Weisz must have put into the project (and the fact that it was co-writer/director Larysa Kondracki's first feature) there should be more here on the film's genesis and production: a commentary, a longer featurette, something. Even a PSA from some well-meaning group on the current dangers of prostitution and sex trafficking would have been appropriate. For a film this well-meaning to have so little on its subject feels a bit cheap.
The Whistleblower is an odd little film. It tackles a dark subject that is sure to be compelling to many viewers. However, it tackles this subject in the guise of a thriller. While that's not a bad idea on the face of it, the fact that it takes a full 30 minutes to get going does the film no favors. With that said, Rachel Weisz is simply magnificent, and viewers with any interest in her as an actor will not regret sitting through this film, even if it could have been better. Because of the lack of supplemental material, though, it's hard to recommend the disc for anything other than a rental.
Not perfect, but also not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site