In the 1970s, both in America and overseas, socially conscious thrillers were an accepted movie genre. Not so much anymore. “The Whistleblower,” starring Rachel Weisz, is an attempted throwback to movies like “Z” and “Three Days of the Condor” – thrillers with smarts and “something to say.”
There are two ways to critically approach “The Whistleblower.” Does it serve a social good, and is it a good film?
The answer to the first question is, yes. Set in 1999, this film about sex trafficking in postwar Bosnia rekindles a true story too little publicized in America (though not in Europe). I only wish the film itself were sharper. It’s an ambitious movie by a first-time director, Larysa Kondracki, and clearly she has taken on more than she can handle. This is certainly not the worst of crimes, but too often she resorts to melodrama when the story cries out for drama.
Weisz, whose fierce performance here echoes her work as the anti-Big Pharma crusader in “The Constant Gardener,” is reason enough to see the film. She plays Kathyrn Bolkovac, a real-life cop from Lincoln, Neb., and a single mother whose ex-husband has retained custody of their daughter. Because she wants to move closer to her daughter, Bolkovac accepts a $100,000 one-year tax-free contract as a peacekeeper in Bosnia. She ends up extending her stay by heading up the United Nations gender office dealing in sexual assault violations.
While on the job she uncovers a network of corruption including not only local bar owners trafficking women but also UN colleagues who are both abetters and clients. Since UN workers are given diplomatic immunity, and since the head of the repatriation program (Monica Bellucci) is resolutely unhelpful, Bolkovac must essentially go it alone.
The focus of her efforts is two Ukrainian sex slaves, Raya (Roxana Condurache) and Irka (Rayisa Kondracki), whom she persuades to testify against their captors despite the women’s well-founded fears of retribution.
Larysa Kondracki, who co-wrote the screenplay with Eilis Kirwan, stages several of the crucial confrontations in ways more appropriate to a western or slasher film. When Bolkovac first steps into the bar to confront the slobbery traffickers, she could be a gunslinger heading into a showdown at the OK Corral. A scene of torture in a brothel has a ghoulish luridness that actually undercuts the reality of the horror. (We are made too aware that we are watching a roomful of screaming actresses.)
But the terror bleeds through anyway, largely because Condurache makes Raya’s fears tremblingly palpable. We can see how Bolkovac’s separation from her own daughter might have fueled her crusader’s instinct in doing right by these women. Bolkovac attracts the romantic interest of a fellow agent (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), and the support of Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), a human rights commissioner for the UN, but essentially she is isolated in her quest – her mania – for justice. Given what she was up against – not only the corruption within the UN but the organized crime in Bosnia and the Eastern European mafia – why did she carry on?
As Weisz plays her, Bolkovac persists because, fearful though she is, she has no other choice. Righteousness is a reflex with her. If Weisz had left out the fearfulness, if she had played Bolkovac as a species of saint, then this true story would have seemed false. The performance works because Weisz grounds Bolkovac’s heroism and gives it an emotional provenance. (Bolkovac co-wrote a book, “The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors, and One Woman’s Fight for Justice,” that goes into much greater detail about her experiences.)
Although Bolkovac was relieved of her duties by her superiors, she won a wrongful dismissal suit in 2001. But the film makes the point that the sex trafficking continues and that Bolkovac’s situation is far from happy.
“The Whistleblower” is frustratingly uneven, but at least it affords us the rare opportunity these days to meet up with a movie hero who isn’t wearing jammies and a cape. Grade: B (Rated R for disturbing violent content, including a brutal sexual assault, graphic nudity, and language.)