Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on December 29, 2013
Pope Francis may have edged out Eric Snowden as “Person of the Year” at TIME magazine, but the contributions by the latter have had a deep and ongoing impact on our national psyche. A lot of whistleblowers wind up dead, behind bars, labeled traitors, or – like Snowden – on the run. Small wonder they’ve also found their lives dramatized on film. Their actions inevitably wrestle with big moral questions and all kinds of risks. They flirt with danger and sometimes succumb to tragedy. The high drama lends itself to the screen. Surely some 100 movies out there deal with the topic, many well regarded and yet to be seen by me. For example, I must have been asleep all of 2005, because I missed both The Constant Gardener and North County that year, films I still need to watch when time allows. My own short list must therefore be taken with a grain-of-salt. It’s not comprehensive so much as a casual cluster of what comes to mind. The consolation prize is that two of these will screen on TCM next month.
On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)
A group of gangsters who control the union murder a rebellious docker. This was one of Marlon Brando’s greatest roles, but it was rebuked by such intellectuals of the time as Arthur Miller, who said: “Doesn’t (On the Waterfront) take an antiunion position and doesn’t it tarnish its own purity by suggesting that a denunciation to the police is the correct attitude?” French film critic André Bazin took a slightly more empathetic view: “It’s true that what I know of Kazan makes me feel antipathetic to the theme. However, there is Brando’s extraordinary performance and two unforgettable love scenes – the first in the church and other as he forces in the door to meet his girl.”
Years later: In 1999 Kazan received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. Kazan was 90 years old, accompanied by Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Some people gave him a standing ovation. Some did not. Kazan passed away in 2003 at age 94.
On the Waterfront screens on TCM January 7th.
An Enemy of the People (Arthur Miller, 1966)
Speaking of Arthur Miller (he and Kazan were close friends up until Kazan’s testimony to McCarthy’s House Un-American Committee in 1952) his response to On the Waterfront could be seen in what was first a one-act play (later revised into a two-act drama) A View From the Bridge (1956). But the topic was still clearly on his mind more than ten years later, when he staged for television an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s drama about a Norwegian doctor who finds out that waters from a nearby spring that are being sold for their healing properties are actually full of deadly toxins.
Years later: People remember Arthur Miller as one of the greatest dramatists of the 20th Century, the man behind Death of a Salesman (1949), a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and also a sometimes cruel husband to Marilyn Monroe. Miller passed away in 2005 at age 89. Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People has enjoyed many adaptations over the years since its creation in 1882, and was also an indirect inspiration for Jaws (1975).
Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973)
Al Pacino plays Frank Serpico, an honest cop who goes above-and-beyond. He decides to expose the corruption he sees around him, is shot in the face for his troubles, and then testifies before the Knapp Commission (which was investigating the NYPD between 1970 – 1972).
Years later: Frank Serpico retired to Switzerland on June 12, 1972. He is still alive, and prefers to refer to whistleblowers as “lamp lighters” in tribute to Paul Revere. He’s the dapper chap sporting the Keith Richards-like skull ring alongside Pacino in the pic at very top.
All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein. Robert Redford as Bob Woodward. Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat. Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (uncredited) play themselves. The rest is history.
Years later: Carl Bernstein was married three times, including to writer and director Nora Ephron. Ephron was later inspired to write the 1983 novel Heartburn, thanks to the affair Bernstein had while Ephron was pregnant with their son. It was later turned into a film starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep (1986).
The China Syndrome (James Bridges, 1979)
Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas play two intrepid news camera people who witness a nuclear reactor core go bonkers. I grew up thinking the film was about the disaster at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island, but that actually happened 13 days after the films release. The China Syndrome first hit theaters on March 16th, 1979. Three Mile Island happened on March 28th, 1979.
Years later: Three Mile Island was so badly damaged and contaminated that it was deactivated and closed. (Total cleanup: $2.4 billion.) Edward Teller, “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” suffered a heart attack from from all his efforts trying to counter the activism in the wake of the film’s publicity and Jane Fonda’s anti-nukes lobbying efforts. He would later joke that he was the only person whose health was affected by the Three Mile Island meltdown. Not surprisingly, Teller is considered one of the inspirations behind the title character for Dr. Strangelove. For those who do not have a handy copy of the massive tome that is The Stanley Kubrick Archives released by Taschen, I’ve taken a picture here from a relevant excerpt taken from a Playboy interview on the subject of nuclear annihilation:
Speaking of nuclear accidents, has anyone out there read Command and Control, the latest book by Eric Schlosser? He’s written a few other books you may have read about, like Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness. The byline for his latest is Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. It’s the kind of book that makes you realize it’s no small miracle we’re all still around to have any conversations at all.
Schlosser is one of those rare journalists who can somehow still make a living spending years sifting layers of recently unclassified data to assemble an incredibly detailed and horrifying picture of humanity at the pinnacle of insanity. He’s surely made his father-in-law (Robert Redford) very proud, as it’s a page-turning book involving all the president’s men and the many acronyms they inhabit, starting with the the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) on up to the WWMCCS (World Wide Military Command and Control System). Here’s but one paragraph from this impressive 632 page book:
That has a way of putting things in perspective, doesn’t it? I’ll give one more example in a moment, but first, let’s drift back down to the topic of police corruption:
Prince of the City (Sidney Lumet, 1981)
This one’s a long one: 167 minutes. It’s one of Treat Williams best roles. Al Pacino (wisely) turned it town, since it was too similar to what he’d already done in Serpico. It’s based on the real-life NYPD Narcotics Detective Robert Leuci, who helped indict 52 corrupt detectives. It shares something in common with The Godfather (1972): both were shot in all five New York City boroughs (Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island, and Manhattan).
Years later: Serpico actually thought that Leuci was one of the only honest detectives still working the New York City Police Department’s narcotics burea. While Serpico was wrong at the time, Leuci came around to expose corruption in the police department. Since then, he’s written several books, done some TV, and still lectures on morality and ethics.
Silkwood (Mike Nichols, 1983)
Based on the true story of Karen Silkwood, a metallurgy worker at a plutonium processing plant who gets contaminated and singled out for whistleblowing activity at her plant. Meryl Streep does an amazing job filling in for Karen. Kurt Russell, the beef-cake boyfriend who likes to walk around bare-chested a lot, is the boyfriend. Cher is the lesbian roommate. All three are fantastic, believable, vulnerable, and full of spunk. They also chain-smoke. All the time. It’s the seventies, after all. And if you’re working in a plutonium factory, cancer is not something you worry too much about, at least not until unraveling events that put cancer at the forefront of your mind every time you set off radiation detectors that impose mandatory, painful, scrub-downs.
Years later: Karen Silkwood worked for the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication site in Oklahoma, joined the union and, in 1974, testified to the A.E.C. (Atomic Energy Commission) regarding faulty fuel rods that were being sold and that could kill as many as two million people in a melt-down that could make the Three Mile Island incident look like a picnic. For her troubles, she found out on November 7th, 1974, that she was contaminated with 400 times the legal limit of plutonium and then died in a mysterious car accident less than a week later on November 13, 1974. Kerr-McGee closed its nuclear-fuel plants in 1975. Silkwood’s family sued the company in a case that reached the Supreme Court in 1979 (Kerr-McGee settled out of court). The Kerr-McGee plants were not considered decontaminated or decommissioned until 1994.
This seems like a good time for one last excerpt from Schlosser’s Command and Control book (my last, I promise):
Anyone keeping score will note that the two passages I recite from Schlosser’s book are only two pages apart. I’m just being lazy. The whole book is terrifying, astonishing, and unbelievable from beginning to end. There but for the grace of God… we are all Karen Silkwood.
Silkwood screens on TCM January 17th.
Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh, 2000)
Julia Roberts won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role as the title character, a single and unemployed mother who takes on the power company for illegally dumping toxic waste in her area, which is poisoning the residents.
Years later: Brockovich has been busy. In 2003 she helped a school district file a suit against oil wells on campus that were associated with 300 cancer cases, in 2009 she went down to Missouri to help farmers who claimed that waste sludge was causing brain tumors, and this year met with residents of Bayou Corne, Louisiana, who are dealing with sink-holes that are thought to be the result of underground waste storage.
Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, 2007)
Another Oscar winner, this time for Tilda Swinton for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role. It was also nominated for six other golden statuettes (including Best Picture, Performance, etc.). It’s a great script with wonderful visual power and strong performances all around.
Years later: Michael Clayton is a fictional work that touches on deadly pollution. The director went on to find success with The Bourne Legacy (2012), while George Clooney continues being a Hollywood powerhouse and good humanitarian on various fronts. He also recently produced the black comedy-drama starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts called August: Osage County, which opened two days ago. The film also stars Benedict Cumberbatch, which brings us (tangentially) to:
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (Alex Gibney, 2013)
Nevermind The Fifth Estate (Bill Condon, 2013). That dramatization by Disney starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange only touched the tip of the iceberg regarding WikiLeaks. The real hero here is Chelsea Manning (who was still Bradley Manning at the time of the release of Gibney’s doc), and The Fifth Estate barely mentions Manning, whereas We Steal Secrets; The Story of Wikileaks realizes that Manning is central to the entire story. Chelsea brings the whole conversation from my first paragraph regarding Eric Snowden full circle. Here is someone who saw humanity at its worst, felt compelled to speak truth to power, and was then tortured for the trouble. Sadly, we seem to have a history in this nation of only comprehending decades later how our immediate collective amnesia and indifference dishonors the sacrifice made by those who risk their reputations and freedom to expose the indifferent brutalities that government forces can wield with impunity.
This same year: On July 30th, Manning was convicted on 17 of 22 charges, carrying a maximum of 90 years. On August 21 she was was sentenced to 35 years confinement and is currently serving time at the United States Disciplinary Barracks in Kansas.
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