Silenced: Film Review

Tribeca Film Festival
Ire-raising political doc is less effective than some of its competitors.

James Spione talks to three former federal employees who exposed government secrets.

NEW YORK – Three former federal employees share their experience of payback prosecution in Silenced, James Spione's doc about whistleblowing in the age of the War on Terror. The subject could hardly be more important, but while these conscience-driven dissenters have moving tales of personal hardship to pair with the bigger democracy-in-peril topic, Spione's film lacks the polish and scope required to compete with similarly themed books and films.

Spione finds two men who attracted prosecution for airing classified info -- John Kiriakou, the first CIA agent to publicly confirm the use of torture in terrorism interrogations, and former NSA official Thomas Drake, who exposed illegal spying on American citizens. His third interviewee, Jesselyn Radack, was a Justice Department lawyer and ethics adviser who released emails regarding John Walker Lindh. Since being muscled out of government work, she has continued to work on whistleblower cases; as she puts it here, "I'm fighting to have my September 10 country back."

That pre-9/11 state is a long way off, judging from these stories. Spione offers just enough context for the Kiriakou and Drake leaks to let him argue how inappropriate it was for the Obama Administration to prosecute them under the Espionage Act, which, in the words of the filmmaker, is being used for something far from its original intent and has now "become a routine way to bludgeon wayward 'leakers' with one of the harshest, most inflammatory charges that can be brought against an American."

Sometimes awkward reenactment footage augments the first-person narratives, and Spione employs some questionable flourishes (a sound effect of helicopter blades, for instance) to heighten the mood of persecution. The film bogs down a bit in its account of Kiriakou's prosecution, weaving the specifics that led him to a 30-month sentence in federal prison with more general issues of the government's stacked-deck dealings with individuals it sees as a threat. A single fact might suffice to make this point: Even before his trial started, Kiriakou's legal defense bill had hit the $1 million mark.

A brief primer on pre-2001 uses of the Espionage Act would be useful here, as would input from some journalists who aren't personally involved with the three cases. But a glimpse of what followed Kiriakou's conviction -- four months after he entered prison, the Edward Snowden stories broke -- reminds us that this isn't a tool D.C. is likely to abandon soon.

Production: Morninglight Films, Naked Edge Films

Director: James Spione

Producers: Daniel J. Chalfen, James Spione

Executive producers: Jim Butterworth, Philippa Kowarsky, Thomas Morgan, Susan Sarandon, Charlie Annenberg Weingarten

Director of photography: John Molinelli

Editor: James Spione

Music: Emile Menasche

Sales: Kevin Isawhina, Preferred Content

Not Rated, 102 minutes