War on Whistleblowers: Film Review

An important subject, handled in scattershot fashion.

The prolific Robert Greenwald turns his attention to a couple of recent cases of insiders speaking out against government policy — and paying the price.

The latest politically engaged output from Robert Greenwald’s documentary-producing foundation looks at the inefficiency, corruption and lack of accountability of the military-industrial complex. Speaking with whistleblowers and journalists who brought dirty truths to light, War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State addresses a subject that deserves thoughtful treatment. But the film takes a breathless, shotgun approach, heavy on editing effects, and feels like a sliced-and-diced product rather than a sober investigation. With a running time falling short of an hour, it’s suited more to small screens or classrooms than extended theatrical play.

Greenwald and his two editors mix up archival footage and sound bites, beginning with a who’s who of whistleblowers through the ages (Galileo, Daniel Ellsberg, Frank Serpico, Jeffrey Wigand, Karen Silkwood) and then zero in on a few recent, well-publicized cases. First is Marine Corps adviser Franz Gayl, who had no luck with the accepted channels of command, all the way to the Secretary of Defense, on the need for bomb-proof vehicles in Iraq instead of troop-endangering Humvees. Tom Vanden Brook, whose coverage of the matter was published on the front page of USA Today, says in the film that it was the most satisfying story in his 25-year career.

As the doc moves on to Bush-era warrantless phone taps and the Obama administration’s uber-aggressive stance against whistleblowers — with more indictments for violation of secrecy than all other administrations combined — it interweaves incisive comments from investigative journalists and media watchers, among them Seymour Hersh, Jane Mayer, David Carr, Sharon Weinberger, and Bill Keller.

For Thomas Drake, the former National Security Agency executive who faced 10 charges under the Espionage Act for speaking out against government waste and policies that he saw as a “subversion of the Constitution,” silence was not an option; he would have felt that he were contributing to a crime had he not taken his information to receptive parties.

The film also touches glancingly on the ongoing, potentially precedent-setting case of WikiLeaks informant Bradley Manning. Though many of the whistleblowers are eventually lauded for their courage, more often than not they paid a high price: their careers and their personal wellbeing.

It’s unfortunate that the busyness of Greenwald’s presentation undercuts the urgency of his argument. War on Whistleblowers feels, frustratingly, like an introduction to a topic that requires calmer and more detailed exploration.

Opens: Friday, April 26 (Brave New Foundation)

Production companies: Brave New Foundation

Director: Robert Greenwald

Producers: Robert Greenwald, Jim Miller

Executive producer: Jeff Cole

Music: Nuno Malo

Co-producer: Natalie Kottke

Editors: Joseph Suzuki, Jason Gutierrez  

No MPAA rating, 53 min.