Whistleblower Cinema Is Back in a Big Way

December 16, 2019, 5:30 PM UTC
Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly, Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, and Margot Robbie as fictional composite Kayla Pospisil in "Bombshell," which opens in wide release Dec. 20.
Hilary B Gayle-Lionsgate

‘Tis the season to be mindful of whistleblowers standing up to institutions with secrets to hide. A few weeks after a still-anonymous insider reported White House phone calls that have now led to articles of impeachment, three new movies are reviving Hollywood’s grand tradition of whistleblower cinema.

In the spirit of All the President’s Men (Watergate scandal), Serpico (police corruption), Silkwood (plutonium contamination), The Insider (Big Tobacco cover-up), Erin Brockovich (pollution), and Spotlight (Catholic Church pedophilia), these films salute real-life mavericks who risked reputation and livelihood to expose systemic wrongdoing. Bombshell (in wide release Friday) shows how Gretchen Carlson became the first woman at Fox News to publicly charge network boss Roger Ailes with sexual harassment. Dark Waters portrays one lawyer’s crusade to hold DuPont accountable for poisoning West Virginia drinking water with carcinogenic chemicals; and The Report dramatizes a congressional staffer’s obsessive quest to detail the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program.

While the American truth-teller archetype inspired an earlier golden age of fact-based thrillers in the ‘70s, big screen whistleblowers return to the fore this winter during an especially fraught time. Dark Waters cowriter and director Todd Haynes tells Fortune, “I’ve always loved whistleblower films about people who experience this very real sense of isolation when they stand up to corruption. All social justice movements really start with individual courage, and I think that idea crosses some of the partisan lines that we’re all mired in right now.”

In synch with the #MeToo movement, Bombshell refers to the 2016 blockbuster lawsuit filed by former Fox & Friends cohost Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) declaring that Fox News CEO Roger Ailes fired her for refusing to have sex with him. As depicted in the film, Ailes (John Lithgow), a master of the workplace quid pro quo, routinely promised female employees career advancement in exchange for sexual favors. Bombshell director Jay Roach notes that the company’s secretive corporate culture, enforced by nondisclosure agreements, enabled Ailes to prey on female employees with impunity.

“Roger Ailes may not have been an entirely successful cult leader, but I think he tried to get 100% loyalty from his employees. When you have men with narcissistic, borderline sociopathic tendencies, they develop systems where everyone has to display their allegiance. This story’s set at Fox, but it’s really about things that go on everywhere and I hope that makes Bombshell compelling as a dark cautionary tale about how badly things can go when you have this kind of toxic set-up in place.”

Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph fleshed out their Bombshell story by speaking to anonymous sources at Fox but had no direct contact with Carlson. “Gretchen might have been even more at the center of our story if she hadn’t been under an NDA, which is actually a big part of many whistleblower situations,” Roach notes. “When people sign confidentiality agreements, they can’t warn each other about what’s going on.”

Referring to an excruciating sequence wherein Ailes humiliates fictional Fox employee Kayla (Margot Robbie), Roach says “It’s obviously partly about sex but it’s also about power. She comes in to audition for a possible on-air slot and he gets her to cross this line. Kayla probably feels shame and won’t want to talk about what happened. That’s how he gets his hooks into her, by creating secrecy that makes women feel isolated.”

Carlson dared to break the code of silence. “It was a remarkable thing to do,” Roach says. “On top of the bullying and abuse, to then go public and have nobody believe you, to be attacked and smeared? In our film Gretchen says ‘I jumped off a cliff and thought other women would support me.’ For two weeks, she faced this predicament: would she be stuck alone forever, isolated amid all this secrecy? Or will other people find their voices and speak up?” When Fox star Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) came forward with her own accusations, Ailes was forced to resign from the network he’d dominated for two decades.

Dark Waters
Director Todd Haynes, right, works with Mark Ruffalo on the set of “Dark Waters.”
Focus Features

Dark Waters (playing theatrically and on Amazon Prime), based on the New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” centers on  onetime corporate defense attorney Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo). Director Haynes says, “At the beginning of this story, Rob had faith in the system, believing that regulation and industry can co-exist. His law firm made a lot of profit from that understanding.”

But in 1998, Bilott experienced a profound change of heart when he visited West Virginia farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) and saw cattle that had been gruesomely disfigured by drinking water contaminated with toxic waste from a nearby DuPont-owned factory. “Once Bilott sees the scope of this [malfeasance], there’s no going back,” Haynes says. “DuPont did everything they could to obfuscate, legally slow down, and resist the discovery process.”

Wilbur, the original whistleblower, was ostracized by his neighbors and kicked out of church “because people in this area were so dependent [for jobs] on DuPont,” Haynes explains. Over the course of his 18-year legal battle, Bilott suffered stress-exacerbated medical episodes. “You’ve got Rob worrying about his own physical well being, not to mention the toll it takes on his family life and his psyche and all those things.”

But Bilott persevered. In 2017, he won a $671 million class-action lawsuit after documenting that “PFOA” chemicals dumped by DuPont caused six kinds of cancer in people living in and around Parkersburg, W. Va. “What we see in Dark Waters reminds me of that book The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. That’s what Rob is all about. He’s a long-distance runner and just has to keep going.”

The Report
Adam Driver stars in “The Report,” which dramatizes a congressional staffer’s quest to detail the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program.
Atsushi Nishijima—Amazon Studios

The Report (now in theaters and on Amazon Prime) also tracks one man’s near-obsessive quest for truth, this time in the person of Dan Jones (Adam Driver). Working for Diane Feinstein (Annette Benign) and her Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Jones undertakes a six-year deep dive into the CIA’s “War on Terror” interrogation techniques. In his research for the movie, director Scott Z. Burns met the real Dan Jones and interviewed more than 200 experts, including Alberto Mora, former general counsel for the United States Navy. Burns explains, “Mora’s the guy who waved his hands and said ‘This [torture] is not something the U.S. should be doing.’ But we didn’t listen to him.”

The Report includes disturbing reenactments of CIA interrogation sessions, which Burns decided to dramatize after speaking to Moor. “In my early drafts I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to show any of that, but Burr told me the original sin was that the CIA destroyed these [waterboarding] tapes. He said ‘If you don’t show this, then you are compounding the sin.’ Those words stuck with me. And my feeling about what we showed is, if you have to put on a black mask to administer justice, then I’m not sure that’s what you’re administering.” Jones’s original 6,700-page report met with intense resistance from CIA officials. In 2014, a heavily redacted 525-page summary finally saw the light of day. “A big part of The Report is about the responsibility of Congress to provide oversight of the executive branch,” Burns says. “That’s the way our government was built. If there’s evidence that a crime was committed, you need to investigate it.”

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