You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Why Do Whistleblowers Make Good Characters?

The video released on YouTube several days ago by a group of amateur filmmakers in Hong Kong is the first of what will surely be many dramatizations of the Snowden saga. Paced like a thriller, it features the requisite pounding music and a few brisk shots of city skylines. It makes reliable use of cinematic details such as the Rubik’s cube that Snowden allegedly used to identify himself to Greenwald. Filmmakers rented an actual room at The Mira, the swanky hotel where Snowden was holed up in Hong Kong, to shoot scenes in which the protagonist stares intensely out the window. The five-minute film is titled “Verax,” after the code name Snowden gave himself, and features some impressively bad acting. “They’re willing to give us an exclusive story on illegal surveillance, hacking, phone tapping. It could be huge,” says a young newspaper reporter with wooden urgency. “Stop chasing the nonsense, OK,” her editor replies. But disappointingly, Snowden himself—played by a young actor who looks the part so fully that his hairdresser, upon trimming his shaggy locks down to NSA-contractor compactness, apparently told him to be careful not to be mistaken for the fugitive—doesn’t say a word. 

Whistleblowers tend to make good characters. This is why we’ve seen so many of them over the past few years, both in drama (take Rachel Weisz as a blunt, feisty U.N. worker exposing a human trafficking ring in 2010’s The Whistleblower) and comedy (Matt Damon as bipolar ADM whistleblower and money launderer Mark Whitacre in 2009’s The Informant!, which made its angle clear both with its titular exclamation point and its tag line “Based on a tattle tale”). In one particularly powerful scene from The Insider (1999)—about former tobacco industry executive Jeffrey Wigand—Russell Crowe’s Wigand sits alone in a room in a hallucinatory daze as the full price of his actions begins to set in. Then there are the classics of the whistleblower canon: Erin Brockovich, Serpico, Silkwood. Some of these characters, while prickly, were redeemed by the moral straightforwardness of their crusade; others were clearly propelled by murkier intentions. Their onscreen treatment reflects the full spectrum of cultural attitudes toward whistleblowers: derision, suspicion, tentative admiration for the sheer commitment to a cause.

The most persuasive recent portrait of a whistleblower, though, may be Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe in HBO’s recently cancelled gem “Enlightened.” Over the course of the show’s two fine-boned seasons, Amy’s quest to destroy the corrupt corporate empire that employed her gained velocity and impact. She invited a fundamental sympathy even as she alienated friends and family and became increasingly shrill. Her martyr complex made her unbearable, but the basic goodness of her mission remained. “Enlightened” was particularly observant in unpacking the psychology of whistleblowing: the questions of motives and trustworthiness, the combustive mix of inflamed ego and naïveté and genuine investment in the task of changing the world.

From Snowden’s earliest interview there were echoes of Amy Jellicoe: half prophet, half loose cannon. There was something of Amy’s deluded narcissism in his ridiculous claim that he was going public with his identity so as not to make the story about himself, while the media cloud around him swirled. And like Amy he seemed partly driven by the numbness and the tedium of office life, his own sense of being a drone in the service of evil. “I’m just another guy who sits there day to day in the office watching what’s happening and goes, this is something that’s not our place to decide,” he said. “The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.” Now that "Enlightened" is done, we'll never know how Amy's story ends. With Snowden, fortunately, we will. Though it's hard to believe that any onscreen adaptation could top the reality show of Snowden on the run.

Follow @lbennett.